Nine new firefighters are just the beginning

IMMOKALEE — New Market and Carson Road fire stations are two of the busiest in the county and are manned by the least number of people.
The Immokalee Fire Department has come a long way over the past few years. After a very rough time that saw the department personnel cut by six full time firefighting positions, the department just received a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant $2,012,052. The grant covers a two-year period and includes $808,824 to retain the six firefighters previously funded, It will also allow Chief Paul Anderson to hire nine new firefighters – three for each shift.
With this grant, Chief Anderson has managed to garner $3 million in federal grants for the IFD in two years.
Currently, IFD has 24 firefighters (seven per shift (day shift has ten including the chief, fire marshal and administrative assistant) and will have a total of 33 come September when the nine new employees can be hired.
The chief is also looking for a pay raise in the 2015-16 budget, the first real raise since 2009. In fact, every employee took a ten percent pay cut at that time, which has since been recouped.
Chief Anderson wrote the grant for nine firefighters and said the department really could use more, but he wanted to make sure he would be able to keep at least six on after the two-year grant ends. He feels sure he will be able to offer the other three paramedic positions, if the economy does not grow enough to keep them all on.
These additional firefighters are important because IFD must be as self-sufficient as possible. Being a distance from other departments, mutual aid is about 20 minutes away, the chief said. Fighting fires is very strenuous, exhaustion sets in quickly and you need to be able to pull people away from fighting the fire to rest and have others to replace them. As it is, there are no personnel to rotate in case of a fire.
There is also the problem of having to answer multiple calls at the same time. Staff needs to be available at the station to respond to other emergencies.
The economic outlook for supporting the fire department is based on property values rising sufficiently, Chief Anderson said, and the economy does seem to be making a comeback. However, the Immokalee Fire District has more tax-exempt properties than any other district in Southwest Florida. Chief Anderson said that is why the fire department budget is so lean. Tax exempt parcels include government, school and church-owned properties. One outstanding such property is Ave Maria University and its housing. The church owns 32 townhouses in the community. There are also government housing properties like FarmWorker Village and public schools that fit into that category.
The state will be studying a fire assessment for the Immokalee district with the intent of combining ad valorem taxes and the fire assessment to fund the department.
He said the ad valorem millage rate for those currently paying property taxes over the $50,000 Homestead Exemption would decrease, balancing out the fire assessment fee. Residents living in apartments do not pay ad valorem property taxes and, therefore, do not contribute to the fire department’s budget. He believes a fairer arrangement would be for every property to be included in a fire assessment fee with rates adjusted so everyone would pay their fair share. All properties would be subject to either ad valorem taxes or the fire assessment. The only exemption would be for church sanctuaries.
But the fire assessment plan, once worked out, would have to be approved by the voters with exemptions decided by the county commission.
The result would be that everyone will pay for fire protection.
The chief explained that the department also needs another permanent station at Ave Maria. Currently there is a makeshift facility with trucks stored outside. Barron Collier has set aside three possible locations for a fire station in Ave Maria. The chief said there is enough money in impact fees to start construction, requiring only a small portion to be financed.
In addition, the department has outgrown the Carson Road station, which only has space for three firefighters and two paramedics to sleep. The facility really needs three more people and two more bays. In fact, the entire facility needs to be replaced, according to Chief Anderson. The district owns the land adjacent to the current 40-year-old structure where it could build a replacement. The Ave Maria and new Carson Road stations will be of the same design.
Firefighters also need new bunker gear, which the chief plans to seek a grant for in the future. New air packs have to wait till after that.
There’s another thing on the chief’s wish list, an assistant chief to share some of the administrative duties.
The chief hopes to purchase new trucks and has added two new trucks – a tower ladder and rescue pumper. He has also replaced all the radios.
Finally, Chief Anderson said he needs to recruit volunteers. IFD has only eight at this time, but the chief envisions 30 of them. FF1 training is paid for each volunteer firefighter – they need only be at least 18 years old, bring their interest, be able to pass the background check and physical. He said the department is to put on presentations at Ave Maria and to I.H.S. seniors, trying to inspire an interest.
Chief Anderson said the department has been through a bad time for several years and is going through the recovery process now. He’s trying to do his best job and federal grants, like this new SAFER grant for more firefighters, are a great benefit.

Patty Brant, Publisher of the Immokalee Bulletin can be reached at pbrant@newszap.com

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