Florida Today.com

Malabar fire chief pursues overhaul

Setbacks prompt changes in rules

BY VICTOR THOMPSON
FLORIDA TODAY

MALABAR - Joe Gianantonio, Malabar Volunteer Fire Department's first new fire chief in more than 24 years, has a lot of work to do.

He and a small team of volunteer firefighters are rewriting -- and, in some cases, creating from scratch -- policies and guidelines governing everything from the department's management to how it fights fires. His team members already found and fixed a glitch in their emergency paging system that was adding minutes to their response times.

He's even encouraging the volunteers to pick up after themselves when they are using the fire station.

"People have realized that change is needed," he said. "I've got a game plan, and everybody's working hard. I think it's going to pay off."

Call for change began last year after a sexual-harassment complaint against a higher-ranking volunteer. The department and the town conducted separate investigations and eventually relieved the volunteer of duty, but the incident damaged the firefighters' morale and image.

In March, firefighters received another setback from a 90-page report done by consulting firm TD Group that criticized the department's response times and recommended that the town contract its fire service with Brevard County or neighboring Palm Bay.

Firefighters met with City Council members in May to discuss the report, and a joint panel involving firefighters, town staff, current and former council members and a resident was formed to oversee the department's changes.

Dave Greene, a retired firefighter and a partner in TD Group, said the department's issues with paperwork and accountability were secondary to the poor response times.

"It's critical that anybody responding to an accident respond within six minutes," he said. "Per capita, they're spending as much money as Palm Bay, and they're not getting advanced life support."

Malabar's current fire budget is $315,174, equal to about $116.68 per resident according to recent population estimates, with more than half of this year's budget going to buy a tanker truck.

The truck will be designed to take water to emergencies in areas of town that don't have fire hydrants, Town Administrator Ed Booth said.

Palm Bay's fire department, which has five fire stations with more than 100 firefighters, is budgeted for $10.7 million this year or $9 more per resident than Malabar's department.

The department's survival may depend on how well it reorganizes itself.

Last year, Grant Volunteer Fire Department ended its 50-year tradition of responding to local emergencies.

Training increase

Volunteer fire departments statewide are facing new challenges as new volunteers leave to professional departments.

In 2001, Florida quadrupled the amount of training required for volunteer firefighters from 40 hours to 160 hours, the same amount of time as those seeking professional employment.

Richard Knoff, chairman of the volunteer fire officers committee for the Florida Fire Chiefs Association, said the change put more pressure on volunteer departments.

The Staffing Assistance for Fire and Emergency Response grant introduced this year by the federal government is among the funding tools that volunteer departments can apply for.

"We have not seen a decline in volunteer fire service," Knoff said. "They're always struggling for funding, for manpower, but there's help out there."

Booth said the department's 46 firefighters need $80,000 more this year for training and new equipment, with most of the money coming from the town's insurance.

"I need that kind of work force in case of an emergency," he said. "We need our own department."

Getting to know Joe Gianantonio


Role: Malabar's new fire chief


Experience: Served as deputy fire chief at Patrick Air Force Base and in the Air Force Reserve; Fire chief in Antigua; Started fire departments in Kuwait and Hungary.


Salary: $7,500 a year

Department comparison


Malabar

Population: 2,701
Malabar Volunteer Fire Department 2004-05 budget: $315,174

Palm Bay

Population: 85,076
Palm Bay Fire Department 2004-05 budget: $10,702,600

Contact Thompson at 242-3724 or vthompson@flatoday.net