East Manatee Fire Rescue was a marriage that didn't work out

A long time ago, folks who lived in rural Manatee County had to depend on the state forest service to keep their homes safe.

But in the 1970s, a dozen or more fire districts were created, each with its own special taxes that collected money to pay for fire services.

As the population grew, many smaller fire departments realized they could respond to fires quicker, and do it cheaper, if they worked together. Samoset, Oneco and Tallevast merged into the Southern Manatee Fire District. Palmetto and Ellenton became the North River Fire District.

Six years ago, Braden River merged with Myakka City.

It was seen as a way to run things more efficiently, saving the taxpayers some money, said Byron Teates, the interim chief of Braden River. "That was the original perception at the time."

Since that merger, both departments have become more professional, Teates said. Braden River went from a "couple of paid employees" and volunteers to now "mostly career people."

Braden River alone has 28 certified career firefighters.

Myakka City is still mostly volunteer, with about four paid full-time employees and about 15 volunteers, said Lt. Dan Cacchiotti, the station supervisor. They're also supplemented with five firefighter paramedics from Manatee County Emergency Services.

"Years ago, this was a fully volunteer department," Cacchiotti said.

Together, the two departments cover about half of Manatee County, about 340 square miles. Myakka City has the larger portion, 240 square miles.

Braden River gets about 2,000 calls a year. Myakka City, about 450.

Now they're parting ways. Their respective boards dissolved the merger that had created East Manatee Fire Rescue.

They'll still work together, Teates said. "For Braden River it won't even be a bump in the road."

Teates said he was surprised that the decision came to end the marriage, even though some folks were not happy about the firing of Bob Dodge as chief or the budget overruns.

"You're always sorry to see something that people put a lot of time and effort into fall apart," Cacchiotti said.

The interlocal agreement was negated, some feel, when Dodge was promoted from training officer to chief.

Part of the exchange of services called for making the deputy chief of Myakka City the training officer. But when Dodge was promoted, the training position wasn't replaced.

"Any time you have organizations trying to merge as one, whether in the private or public sector, it's hard," Teates said. "You have different philosophies, wages, expenditures."

Sarasota managed it and it's a solid marriage today, although there was some disagreement over pension funds. And bigger places have combined districts.

Some attempts, however, don't even make it to the altar. Southern Manatee and Cedar Hammock courted each other for years without consummating the relationship.

Braden River, formed in 1980, came late to the party. But it's the fastest-growing district in the county, which raises a concern about the dissolution's timing.

"It's very hard to keep services parallel to the growth," Teates said. "We're all looking at different options, a lot of things."

There's 18 miles separating Braden River from the Myakka City station, and another 22 miles to Duette along winding two-lane roads. That affects response times to fires and other calls. The mutual aid agreements will stay in place for quicker responses to emergencies.

"We don't want to do anything that will be detrimental to community," Cacchiotti said.

Jeff Schweers can be reached at (941)742-6167 or by e-mail at jeffschweers@heraldtribune.com