Proposal seeks to merge Hialeah firefighters with county
Hialeah's fire department -- older than many South Florida cities -- could be dissolved under a proposal being discussed.
BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ
mrvasquez@herald.com

Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez is in talks with county officials about the possibility of merging Hialeah's nationally recognized fire department with the county's larger force.

Stan Hills, head of the county firefighters union, told The Herald on Tuesday that he approached Martinez with the idea last fall, and that discussions are still in the early stages. So far, Hills said it seemed as if Hialeah taxpayers would save some money by joining up with the county.

''It's premature to say that much,'' Hills said. ``We're not done in any way, shape or form.''

Yet at least one Hialeah council member was unaware that the change was even being considered, and she criticized the mayor for not running it by the City Council -- and the public -- beforehand.

Recently elected Councilwoman Cindy Miel said the mayor's actions represented what she saw as a larger problem -- namely the way important decisions in her city are made.

''Nothing happens publicly,'' she said. ``Everything happens behind closed doors, and once it's in the final stages, that's when everybody knows about it.''

Martinez declined to comment.

FINAL SAY

The City Council would have to approve handing fire service over to the county.

Hialeah's 230 firefighters would not be in danger of losing their jobs or pension benefits through the merger, Hills said. Hialeah Fire Chief Otto Drozd III would still have a place in the county's department as well, although he would probably have to settle for something a little lower in the chain of command.

Drozd, who said he is reserving judgment on the merger idea until more specifics are released, said he was unconcerned about no longer being the man in charge.

''Right now I'm the head of the department,'' Drozd said. ``The way I got there was being able to take orders and do my job.''

Outside of Hialeah, only a handful of other large cities in the county -- including Miami, Miami Beach and Coral Gables -- provide their own fire service. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's 1600-member force is far larger than any of the municipal departments, with its growth over the years partially fueled by mergers with small city departments.

Still, it has been a while since the county did this sort of thing -- the last merger was with West Miami's fire department in 1980, Hills said. While stressing the efficiency that a behemoth department like Miami-Dade's brings, Hills acknowledged the potential among some firefighters for a backlash.

''You're like a stranger in a strange land,'' Hills said of firefighters absorbed into a larger force. ``A lot of times you don't want to be taken over by Big Brother.''

LONG HISTORY

Started in 1925, Hialeah's fire department boasts a long, proud history. It is one of only four departments in Florida -- and 50 nationwide -- awarded a class 1 ISO rating, a classification handed down by a private New Jersey-based company that examines roughly 45,000 departments for insurance purposes.

The ISO classification is based on a variety of factors, including response times, the availability of a nearby water supply, training and the quality of emergency 911 service.

Residents and businesses in Hialeah save money on their insurance premiums because of the city's class 1 rating.

The county's department, which has received its own share of accolades, has an ISO rating several grades below Hialeah.

The county's ISO rating is hurt by some factors beyond its control -- points are deducted for rural undeveloped areas in South Miami-Dade that lack an ample supply of fire hydrants.

If Hialeah switches to county fire service, Drozd said insurance premiums could rise because of the difference in ISO ratings.

Early in his political career, Martinez counted on the Hialeah firefighters union for support, but the relationship has soured in recent years, dominated by firefighter complaints over pay, staffing levels and working conditions.

The union supported Martinez's opponent the last two times he was up for reelection.

Should Martinez make a push to scrap his city's fire department, the decision is sure to fuel accusations among his detractors of political retribution.

`MIXED REVIEWS'

Yet Hialeah firefighters themselves aren't uniformly opposed to the concept. Union President Dean Parkerson said the idea has gotten ''mixed reviews,'' with some prideful firefighters reluctant to see the end of their department and others hopeful the county will be more generous with pay and staffing.

''In a lot of ways, there would be some improvements,'' Parkerson said. ``Then again, we have one of the best fire departments in the state, you hate to see it absorbed by somebody else.''