St. Lucie fire district plans to improve response


By Jim Reeder, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2003



FORT PIERCE -- St. Lucie County's two busiest fire stations, both in Fort Pierce, averaged more than 11 fire or ambulance calls a day last year, sometimes leaving them no firefighters and no equipment to answer another call from their zones.

Other stations answered the calls, but with slower response times than if the nearest stations had been able to handle them.

"I was at the Veterans Administration clinic on U.S. 1 when I needed an ambulance, but there was none available at the nearest station on Avenue D," White City resident Terry Cooper said. "I had to wait for an ambulance to come from Lakewood Park."

The Lakewood Park ambulance had to travel 8 miles to reach Cooper, while the Avenue D station was just a few blocks away.

Cooper spoke at a recent St. Lucie County Fire District meeting to support Fire Chief Jay Sizemore's recommended property tax hike from $2.67 to $2.78 per $1,000 taxable value.

Sizemore said the increase is necessary for pay raises required by the union contract and higher costs of insurance and contributions to the retirement system.

He also wants to hire 21 new employees to train them to be ready when a new fire station opens in 2005.

Most of the newer stations have been built to serve new developments such as St. Lucie West, although the Avenue D station in northwest Fort Pierce was to relieve the load on other stations and improve response times to that area.

Still, each of the county's 15 stations has only one ambulance, and rescue calls are the bulk of the department's business.

"Sometimes it's not about needing a new station but about needing more equipment and manpower at the stations we have," Sizemore said. "I think I could justify another ambulance at some stations."

St. Lucie County's high activity numbers were spotlighted in a recent survey by Firehouse magazine that asked departments nationwide to submit information.

Station 15 ranked as the 18th busiest among the 234 stations that answered the questionnaire, and the St. Lucie County department ranked 76th in the nation among the 241 departments that responded.

But if more ambulances are placed at some stations, more employees would be needed at each. Four people at a time staff most stations, and all of them -- two on an ambulance and two on a firetruck -- often respond to a call.

"If we're sure only an ambulance is needed, we don't send the firetruck," Sizemore said. "But sometimes we get a lot of calls with conflicting information. If there's any doubt about what's needed, we send both vehicles and all personnel."

While two of the three Fort Pierce stations handle more than 10 calls a day, the station on Shinn Road 10 miles west of Florida's Turnpike has about one call a day.

"That's out there to provide quick response time" in the western area, Sizemore said. "How long do you want to wait if you're trapped in a car out there?"

The other stations closest to the Shinn Road area are on Rhode Island Avenue in Fort Pierce and on Midway Road in White City.

Employees are rotated from the busier stations to Shinn Road periodically to give them a break from the stress of handling so many calls daily, Sizemore said.

Tim Munson, head of the International Association of Fire Fighters union, said he recently requested a transfer from the busiest station on Avenue D to Station 2 on Seaway Drive, which has about one-fourth as many calls a year.

"My cardiologist said I have to start acting my age," said Munson, 49. "Some 80 percent of Station 2's calls are to provide backup for Station 15."

He supported the chief's request for a tax hike.

"Which is scarier, raising taxes or closing a fire station?" Munson said. "The $8 per year, about the cost of a pizza, is a small price to pay."

If fire board members approve the tax hike Sept. 17, the owner of a $100,000 house with the $25,000 homestead exemption will see the portion of his tax bill supporting the fire district rise from about $200 to about $208 a year.

jim_reeder@pbpost.com