The Zephyrhills Fire Department — as it has been known for some 100 years — has made its last service call.
The department officially became part of Pasco County Fire Rescue on Sept. 27, through an interlocal agreement that was approved in May.
The hometown fire department’s 24 full-time employees, two stations and apparatus are now part of the county’s fire and rescue operations.
The fire stations’ computer and audio systems become unified within the county’s 911 operations center.
Along with the change, the city’s two stations have been renamed from Zephyrhills Fire Department Station 1 and Zephyrhills Fire Department Station 2, to Pasco County Fire Rescue Station 25 and Pasco Country Fire Rescue Station 29, respectively.
The merger had been coming for some time.
Besides a ballooning annual budget, Zephyrhills Fire Department over the years battled personnel turnover, staffing shortages and outdated equipment.
The city hasn’t had a fire chief for over 18 months, instead dividing those duties among three battalion chiefs.
The merger is a “win-win” for all parties involved, said Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley, who made an appearance at a Sept. 28 Zephyrhills City Council meeting.
Oakley, himself a Zephyrhills resident, explained that the community will benefit from increased staffing at both fire stations and two operable ambulances, quickening response times inside city limits and surrounding unincorporated areas.
“You’re going to see much better service than you’ve ever seen before,” said Oakley, noting the transition was “very seamless.”
Oakley also underscored the importance of the county economy of scale to takeover and fully fund the two fire stations, located on Sixth Avenue and Dairy Road, respectively.
The commissioner also relayed a message from a local firefighter who praised the county’s resources, which, for instance, has allowed for a third firefighter/paramedic on a ladder truck to respond to scenes, as opposed to two staffers previously.
“If they’re going out there to save somebody’s life and they need that extra hand, it’s there. That’s going to be a great thing,” Oakley said.
Meantime, the consolidation saves Zephyrhills from having to implement what would have amounted to a pricey fire assessment fee on residents and business owners to keep the local agency afloat.
Its fire department budget the last two years was $3.3 million in fiscal year 2019 and $2.8 million in fiscal year 2020 — nearly totaling the amount the city will pay the county to take fire rescue operations off its hands in perpetuity.
The interlocal agreement (as well as extended employee benefits) costs Zephyrhills roughly $5.5 million total, generally spread out over a period of seven years. After fiscal year 2026-2027, the city won’t have to pay the county for fire rescue services — as it will be solely propped up by a Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU) assessed to city residents and commercial entities, similar to how Dade City receives such services. An MSTU for fire services is expected to have less financial impact on city residents and commercial entities than a fire assessment fee, officials say.
Zephyrhills City Council President Charles Proctor acknowledged the merger was quite trying emotionally and sentimentally, but said it was something that had to be done for the viability of the city.
“Nobody wants to get rid of an institution,” he said, “but, I think we’re going to save the citizens in the long run, financially, and they’re going to get a lot better service, and that’s what’s important. We have to look at the big picture.”
Fellow council members, including Lance Smith, echoed such feelings.
“We were never really ever able to give the firemen what they needed, and that was a full staff at this station, which is the way to be safe, so I think that we ultimately came to this decision for the good of our fire department,” Smith said.
Though gear and uniforms may now read, “Pasco County Fire Rescue,” many fire rescue personnel at Station 25 and Station 29 are familiar to city residents — having either worked for the former city fire department or new hires with deep ties to the area.
For instance, a pair of fairly recent Zephyrhills High School graduates are now paramedics running ambulances out of Station 25.
“We’re not completely losing that hometown feel that we thought we might be,” said Councilman Ken Burgess. “We still have it.”
Added Smith, “It’s still the Zephyrhills Fire Department in all of our minds.”
The history of the city’s fire department is believed to date back to 1915, when it started as a volunteer organization. Since the 1970s, it had a paid professional staff.
On a related note, Oakley mentioned as many as five new fire stations could be built throughout the entire county, within the next three or four years.
Published October 07, 2020