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Firehouse Interview: Chief Ray Colburn (ret.), Reedy Creek Emergency Services

Ben May recently interviewed William “Ray” Colburn, who retired as the fire chief of Reedy Creek Emergency Service in late April. Colburn started with the Reedy Creek Emergency Services in Lake Buena Vista, FL, as a firefighter/paramedic in 1979. Richard D. LePere Jr. was appointed fire chief following Coburn's retirement.

You can find more photos from this interview in the Firehouse Limited Edition Tablet App, which is available now.

May: What is the background for the establishment of Reedy Creek Emergency Services?

Colburn: The Florida Legislature, in 1967, recognized that the economic progress and well-being of the people of Florida was dependent, in large measure, upon the many visitors and new residents coming to Florida. In order to assure the future welfare and continued prosperity of Florida and its people, it created the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). RCID was established to provide a full range of governmental services to an undeveloped Central Florida site nearly twice the size of Manhattan. The enabling legislation provided RCID with powers, functions and authorities to promote and create favorable conditions for the development and practical application of new and advanced concepts.

One of those governmental services was the Reedy Creek Emergency Services (RCES). RCES was created to provide public safety, fire prevention and protection and emergency medical services (EMS). 

The history of our unique community has clearly demonstrated the premise that proactive policies of providing fixed extinguishment and alarm systems in buildings offer significant long-term benefits as related to building occupant and firefighter safety. A major factor with this type of approach is the continual inspection process to ensure that all fire protection systems remain fully operational. 

May: How does RCES operate versus other kinds of departments?

Colburn: RCES was conceived and organized for the purpose of providing emergency and non-emergency fire service functions within a very special community. The initial community served was a large construction site known as “Walt Disney World (WDW).” The Department was initially designed in a traditional manner, which incorporated many of the practices of a typical municipal fire service environment for the delivery of these types of services. However, the requirements of Factory Mutual stipulated that prevention and fixed fire protection systems as opposed to an aggressive fire suppression force would be required due to the isolated location.

The WDW Community, as constructed in 1971 using the EPCOT Building and Fire Prevention Code(s), eliminated many of the life and building safety problems inherited by poor construction practices common in most areas of the country. Automatic sprinkler protection systems were installed in all significant structures within the District and fire and smoke detection systems were common in most buildings. Every control valve and switch in these systems was, and continues to be, monitored by a central computerized control system in redundant locations with RCES being one of these monitoring points. I believe that the fire service community marveled at the commitment demonstrated by the district and the landowner in demanding a fire safe community and based upon this commitment and partnership, the District has enjoyed an unmatched fire loss record of less than $200,000. The district covers 28,000 acres in Central Florida.

May: How do you handle fire prevention throughout the district?

Colburn: The department maintained a small, but active, group of inspection personnel until the mid 1980s. In 1984, the district signed an agreement with the Walt Disney World Company to expand the fire prevention activities of the department to offset the loss of the Walt Disney World Fire/Loss Prevention Department. To meet these expanded activities, the department increased its own inspector base to meet workload and inspection demands. This agreement outlined additional fire prevention support activities establishing the foundation of our unique service delivery and prevention effort.

Today, fire prevention consists of 18 fire safety inspectors, 1 battalion chief, 2 assistant chiefs and 1 deputy chief (who serves as the department’s fire marshal). These personnel provide 24-hour coverage five days per week. Typical fire prevention activities include, but are not limited to, annual inspections, bi-monthly inspections, plans review, emergency power testing, alarm systems acceptance testing, kitchen system testing, weekly kitchen walk through/inspections, convention plans review and inspections, issuing permits, public education, occupancy checks, sprinkler system inspections and public service responses.

May: RCES EMS has a unique EMS delivery plan. What details can you share with us about service delivery?

Colburn: In 1971, RCES began its delivery of emergency medical services (EMS) to the employees and guest of WDW. Initially, this service was two-fold. EMS was provided through response to the areas within the district and to provide industrial medical services to the employees of WDW after the close of their first-aid facilities. In 1976, the department, through the City of Bay Lake, began the delivery of advanced life support (ALS) paramedic services within the district. This service has evolved into an ALS transport service with the addition in 2001 of ALS first response Medical Assistance Response Cart (MARC) program. This program combined with the Public Access Defibrillation Program has allowed for quicker and a more efficient response to those patients in cardiac arrest resulting in increased survivability. This has been accomplished by the deployment of personnel and equipment throughout the district, mainly in the park environment, in satellite stations. The acceptance and success of the MARC Program has exceeded our expectations as demonstrated in a recent audit by the department’s medical director, which showed a 50 percent survivability rate for those patients in cardiac arrest (ventricular fibrillation). As such, and as an effort to continue to improve service delivery standards, the department expanded the MARC Program in 2007 by adding two carts and 10 personnel.

Also, as an increase in service delivery, the department developed and implemented an EMS Bicycle Response Team to cover special events such as the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2006. This team, consisting of 15 personnel, EMTs and paramedics, trained to utilize their portability to their highest advantage while maneuvering through densely crowded venues with relative ease. These teams can provide rapid patient contact and treatment to areas that are more difficult to access by traditional response units. When not responding to sick or injured persons, the team provides various public education initiatives such as bicycle safety and first aid and safety information.

Currently, the department operates seven ALS transport rescues, one ALS squad, one ALS engines, one ALS tower and 7 MARC units staffed with EMS personnel daily. These personnel are divided into two categories, paramedic/firefighters who staff the transport rescue as well as the squad and engine companies on a 24 on-duty/48 off-duty schedule and paramedics and EMTs who staff the MARC units on a eight- 10-, 12-, or 16-hour shift. EMS personnel staffing consist of two assistant chiefs, three battalion chiefs, three MARC captains, 60 paramedic/firefighters, 22 paramedics and 14 EMTs.

May: How do you handle your 911 communications?

Colburn: When the department was established in 1968, one secretary operated the radio and answered a basic 911 line transferred from a call center during the day. After normal business hours, a firefighter was assigned and assumed the responsibility for dispatching. The communication section has evolved and transitioned from a one person with a note pad in an eight-by-eight-foot room, a one channel UHF radio system in the 60s and 70s to the addition of a four channel trunked 800 MHz radio system, a computer-aided dispatch system and basic 911 capabilities in 1989.

It continued to expand to today’s state-of-the-art facility with Enhanced 911, 800 MHz Smartnet radio system, and advanced 911 workstations. These workstations provide the dispatcher the ability to track and monitor a unit’s activities, answer incoming emergency and non-emergency telephone calls, view mapping (GPS) data to determine the location of personnel and their relation to active alarms, and monitor automatic fire alarms within jurisdictional structures.

The communications section serves as the initial link between the emergency services department and the public. The center is the public safety answering point (PSAP) for all calls to 911 within the district's jurisdiction. In 2008, the communications section received and processed more than 250,000 incoming telephone calls, of those calls, more than 32,000 resulted in a response of emergency services personnel. 

The section also serves as the monitoring station for all mechanical alarms that are received via an area-wide automatic monitoring and control system (AM&CS) that monitors 6,000 alarm points throughout the district. Other responsibilities of the center include tracking the activities of fire safety inspectors and operations personnel during inspections and daily activities, as well as supporting the inspection process by providing alarm readouts and confirmations during testing. 

The communications center utilizes an Enhanced 911 program that not only provides the name, address and telephone number of the caller, but when involving a hotel property, it displays the number of people staying in the room and the native language of the guest. This provides valuable information to the communicator, who then is able to determine the exact location of the caller and if an interpreter is needed. 

All communications personnel are trained in emergency medical dispatching (EMD). This training provides the communicator the skills and ability to give potential life saving pre-arrival instructions to 911 callers. Also, in 2006, the Communications Center became the first Center in the Central Florida area to become accredited through the National Academy of Emergency Medical Dispatch, a distinction only held by 110 centers throughout the world. This accreditation demonstrates the center’s commitment to excellence in handling emergency calls and that the staff takes pride in their consistent level of service. 

The communications center is staffed with one assistant chief who provides administrative and technical oversight for the Center, two assistant supervisors assigned to rotating shifts not only to provide training and quality assurance reviews, but to work a console as well, and 14 communicators providing 24-hour a day, seven days-a-week coverage.

May: What type of special operations support do you have?

Colburn: After the events of Sept. 11, RCFD made a decision to develop its own Special Operations and Response (SOAR) Team to meet the needs of our community. This move was to establish a timely response for detection and mitigation of hazardous situations without relying on, or depleting our neighbor’s resources. The SOAR Team currently consists of 36 selected and trained personnel. In-depth training of SOAR personnel was conducted to ensure their compliance and proficiency as hazmat technicians, and in the monitoring and detection of chemical and biological agents, and mass decontamination. Training in other associated disciplines such as, but not limited to, rope, collapse, water rescue, trench rescue, and confined space, continues as the SOAR Team works and establishes relationships with other emergency service providers.

Over the last 40 years, emergency services has continued on its track as an industry leader in incident stabilization and property conservation through its service delivery, while maintaining life safety and customer service as its top priority. Our success has been, and continues to be, based upon our commitment to governmental excellence as shown through the hiring and retaining of well-trained personnel, providing effective and efficient emergency and non-emergency services and unparalleled inspection practices.

May: Explain the relationship and process whereby RCES and Walt Disney World Resort work together.

Colburn: The relationship with Walt Disney World Resort is a symbiotic one for RCES. Although there is a definite line between private and public, operationally there are daily opportunities to foster good working relationships between the guests and cast members. The areas that RCES & WDW continually interface are regulatory training, project reviews, intelligence or security information gathering, anti-terrorism training and awareness, communications and emergency management planning.

May: What are the keys factors that make RCES different and better?

Colburn: The attention our employees give to guest service is number one, of course. This dedication and professionalism of all RCES personnel makes the department an industry leader in EMS and Fire Protection. There are other differentiating programs that make Reedy Creek Emergency Services unique:

  • Direct monitoring of fire alarm points
  • Water-based fire protection system inspection program (Reedy Creek hired licensed sprinkler contractor to oversee the inspection of all water based fire protection systems within the district).
  • The district requirement for detection and suppression systems is far more stringent than elsewhere. (Everything is required to be sprinkled – even lawnmower sheds!)
  • Training and preparation for simultaneous, multiple mass gathering events: an everyday occurrence at Walt Disney World Resort.
  • Enhanced 911 System – this system provides the exact location of landline callers, even those callers in hotel rooms. The Reedy Creek 911 Communications Center can easily identify 911 calls originating from a hotel room, including the name of the guest in the room, language that the guest speaks, room number, floor, building name and number, and callback number to the hotel room.
  • Massive public access defibrillation program and its unique tie-in to the 911 system. When an AED unit is removed from its cabinet, it will automatically dial 911 and identify its exact location to the 911 dispatcher. Units are immediately dispatched which provides for rapid response times and rapid ALS delivery.
  • Constant fire inspections

In addition to annual fire inspections as required by code, fire inspectors are also performing building walks and life-safety system inspections every other month. This practice has led to an extremely low fire loss record.

May: How is your training conducted?

Colburn: RCES has conducted internal regulatory and specialized training for responders; training is facilitated in several ways – in the classroom setting with interactive media and participation as well as hands-on exercises and drills. Emergency personnel at Reedy Creek train extensively on the unique responses within their protection district. EMS continuing education requirements can be accomplished via web-based and hands-on type of training. The training division is responsible with coordinating all aspects of training like EMS, Fire, Special operations, industrial, and more.

May: Do you have programs that train Walt Disney World Resort cast members?

Colburn: RCES provides American Heart Association certified instructors for WDW regulatory training with CPR/AED and first aid on a weekly basis. Following the terrorist attacks in 2001, our agency, in conjunction with local law enforcement, was instrumental in instructing terrorism awareness courses and field exercises to approximately 1,300 WDW security hosts. As a result of the many training scenarios and real-world responses, WDW and RCES have uniquely developed a Unified Command structure that lends itself to a more operationally efficient management of incidents across the resort property.

Reedy Creek also has an integral part the WDW “manager on duty” training class. During this class, Reedy Creek’s segment trains the cast members who are new to the duty manager role on how to properly access the 911 system, as well as how to effectively and efficiently interface with Reedy Creek at emergency scenes.

May: What was your fire service career path?

Colburn: I started with the district in 1979 as a firefighter/paramedic assigned to ”B” shift; yes I was a B-shifter. I continued my education and perused my passion of fire-based EMS eventually being promoted to captain of EMS. As an officer, I always wanted more responsibility organizationally and again I was promoted to assistant chief, deputy chief of operations and finally fire chief.

May: What is your leadership style?

Colburn: I am a servant leader; I believe that part of my job is to serve not only the community, but serve those who I lead as well by doing the best that I can do. You see, if I do my job right, I take care of my employees by providing them with the best equipment, good benefits, a safe environment and an example of integrity. I have just two books on my desk, Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual and The Bible and I use both of them frequently.

May: What lessons have you learned along the way?

Colburn: I have made so many mistakes in my career we do not have the time or paper to cover them. My advice to the young fire officer is to never compromise your integrity, listen before you respond, consider before you condemn and most of all, never ever lose your ability to show compassion to those in need. When I was a new officer struggling with a personnel issue, my Chief once told me something I have never forgotten. He said “no one is worthless, if nothing else you can always use them as a bad example.” I often wonder if he was referring to me.

May: What other organizations do you contribute to in Fire/EMS?

Colburn: I continue to very active in advocating for fire-based EMS and patients rights. I currently serve on the Board of Directors of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association; serve as a member of the Florida Department of Health EMS Advisory Council representing EMS Administrator for Fire Services and I’m an active member of the IAFC EMS Section.

May: How does Reedy Creek relate to other jurisdictions? Mutual Aid?

Colburn: The department has a good working relationship with the surrounding agencies and counties by participating in mutual training sessions, providing leadership in local EMS operations and advisory council meetings, and working within an established countywide EMS medical direction or protocols. Also, RCES responds mutual aid to neighboring counties and has established agreements to guide responses.

May: What does Reedy Creek do for disaster preparedness?

Colburn: While working under a comprehensive emergency management plan for the District, RCES is constantly working with the Walt Disney World Company and their stakeholders in Orlando. The emergency managers of each entity are consistently interfacing and participating in planning, table-top and full-scale exercises, as well as any specialized rescue or evacuation scenarios year around. RCES also reports within the Orange County and State of Florida Emergency Management structure during any major incidents or severe weather events. An all-hazards approach is the key to a proactive and reactive response to any potential disasters within the District.

May: What do you see as the future of the US fire service? Key issues, challenges?

Colburn: All fire and EMS-based agencies will need to always redefine or develop more “best practices” with their service delivery to the community. Reedy Creek has embraced this type of thinking and is constantly looking for ways to improve the guest/customer experience. Innovation should be the focus of any agency in the United States, both now and into the future. The common challenges or issues to be faced in the future will continue to be in communications, technology, funding and more importantly interoperability with local, state and federal entities.

See Ben Live! Ben May will be presenting "Strategic Brand Development for Fire and Rescue Services" at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, July 23 - 27.

BEN MAY, a contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of marketing management for the fire and emergency services for more than 25 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Rescue.