Estero-San Carlos Park: Estero officials continue to work for fire training site

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

By CHRISTINA HOLDER, clholder@naplesnews.com


It already has a name and a brochure, but a training center Estero fire district officials hope will serve 9,000 local fire professionals a year still doesn't have a home.

Estero officials have been meeting in recent months with officials from the Lee County Deputy Sheriffs Association to talk about the possibility of sharing part of 476 acres of land that Lee County owns on Alico Road near Corkscrew Road. The Sheriffs Association wants 100 acres for a youth ranch for at-risk kids, while Estero Fire Rescue wants 20 to 40 acres for its Corkscrew Safety Training Institute.

County officials have said there may be room for only one agency to build, noting that they considered the youth ranch to be most compatible with the current uses on the site. The county houses its water plant and well fields on the land.

Estero fire officials aren't giving up, though, and are continuing their effort to convince county and sheriff's officials the training center wouldn't detract from the youth ranch.

Estero Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield said some people may be assuming the training facility is incompatible with other uses. Instead, he thinks the facility fits with both the plans for the youth ranch and the current land uses.

"The water plant is considered an industrial-type use," Merrifield said recently. "We continue that industrial-type use."

The brochure for the training center says it will include features such as a five-story training tower, an obstacle course, a burn building and confined space, fire and hazardous materials props.

Harry Horn, the ranch project manager, said he does see a benefit in having fire personnel nearby, "walking and talking with kids" in a mentoring role. However, he still is concerned that smoke and noise from sirens might disturb the horses and kids at the ranch.

Fire Marshal Mike Cato doubted there would be frequent disruptions.

"We are not going to be sounding sirens or blowing horns unless there is an emergency," he said. "The noise factor is probably going to be nil."

Cato said that the facility would also include burn buildings constructed with materials that would help to contain heat and control smoke.

Beyond compatibility, Horn has said, available space is an issue.

There are limited upland areas in the 100 acres to build the four youth ranch buildings. The 476 acres is buffered on the east by a 313-acre parcel the county owns but has preserved for use by Southwest Florida International Airport.

Property owned by the South Florida Water Management District is on the southern border. Conservation 20/20 property, land the county obtains to expand preserves, buffers the north and east.

Jeff Lindsey, the district's executive officer, said a training center is needed in Estero.

"I think it's becoming more of a necessity everyday with the amount of requirements placed upon us," he said. "Sept. 11 is still fresh in everybody's mind."

The training center would offer classes for fire district employees on how to respond to incidents involving toxic material and weapons of mass destruction and how to cooperate with residents, law enforcement agencies and fire districts during disasters. If built, the center would the first of its kind in the southeastern United States.

Lindsey said fire officials do a lot of training in other cities such as Sarasota, and even in other states. A local training center would allow fire officials to offer training specific to the climate and terrain, he said, and would allow them to accommodate nearby fire districts.

"We're not going to be using it every moment of the day," he said. "The time we are not using it, we are more than welcome to open our doors."

Merrifield said that as "both parties learn" about each other, he is hopeful the Sheriffs Association will see how the youth ranch and training center could co-exist on the property.

"They talk a lot about public-private partnerships," Merrifield said. "This is a good example."



Contact Staff Writer Christina Holder at 213-6039 or clholder@naplesnews.com