'Closest unit' response steams fire chiefs
Volusia County plan forces cities to participate


Last update: 21 April 2003

DELAND -- City limit signs shouldn't stop a paramedic or firefighter from saving a life. But a proposed county ordinance ordering lifesaving workers to ignore those boundaries is running into roadblocks from area fire chiefs and city officials.

The ordinance, which could be presented to the Volusia County Council as early as May, says a city could lose its permit to provide emergency medical services to its own residents if it does not participate in a "closest-unit response" program with its neighbors.

That perceived threat has some fire chiefs steaming.

"This needs to be an issue of cooperation, not coercion," said Chris Phelps, fire chief for Ponce Inlet. "We've had quite a bit of discussion regarding this topic over the years. If this ordinance goes through, we'll be under obligation to be the automatic first respondents to the cities or unincorporated county areas closest to us."

County emergency medical services officials say that the "closest unit response" plan is designed to improve emergency service to all residents.

A study commissioned last year by the Volusia Council of Governments concluded that residents would be best served when the closest unit -- regardless of city or county boundaries -- responds to an emergency call.

Critics, however, question how the program will work if departments around the county have different equipment and staffing levels.

Matt Zavadsky, emergency medical services manager for the county, says the cities of Holly Hill, Port Orange, New Smyrna Beach and Ponce Inlet have expressed concerns about the proposed ordinance.

Zavadsky says fire chiefs and city managers are worried about leaving their cities vulnerable to an emergency when they cross their borders to aid a neighbor.

Most cities now have between three and four firefighters staffing their emergency units, while the county often has between one and three firefighters, depending on the area, Zavadsky said. Because of that, officials are worried their residents won't get the same level of service from the county. City officials also are worried they'll be called on to respond more often than the county will.

"We need to have equity of service and equity of call volumes," said Port Orange City Manager Ken Parker. "That means if a city responds to an emergency more often than the county does, there needs to be some compensation for manpower and equipment. That would not happen under the ordinance."

The county says it already provides closest unit response to cities automatically. County officials are also in the process of cementing a closest unit response pact with DeLand, so the city will respond to emergencies in unincorporated pockets such as Spring Hill, where two teens died in a January fire at a church that resulted when their pickup crashed into the building and exploded.

DeLand City Manager Mike Abels said there will be no compensation from the county for the closest unit response service for a year. After that, the two governmental entities will review how the plan has worked for them. Aside from the costs and staffing concerns, city officials said they resent being told what to do by the county and believe closest unit response agreements work best when they are voluntary.

Phelps and Parker both said Volusia officials should have consulted the cities while preparing the ordinance.

Despite the naysayers, County Council Chairman Frank Bruno and Zavadsky believe the cities will come around as the proposed law goes through a review process where it is discussed with various community boards and organizations such as the council of governments.

But most city officials say some of the provisions in the law are harsh -- such as one that calls for revoking the permit that gives cities the right to provide emergency medical services to residents.

At least one city manager said he thinks the county is bluffing.

"That's not a realistic threat," Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte said. "No city will stand for that."