LAKE COUNTY, Fla. --
Some Lake County officials want to overhaul the local fire departments. Their aim is to cut response times, but also save millions of taxpayer dollars by pooling resources to buy equipment. But those plans could meet strong resistance.
Since they first met more than 50 years ago, Pat and Ralph Baker have shared a lifetime of triumph, and tragedy.
"You'll never forget it, because we lost our, our precious dog," Pat Baker said.
In the fire that took their Tavares home Pat and Ralph say firefighters didn't respond quickly enough. The local fire chief says his trucks arrived in under five minutes, and firefighters from four different departments crossed territorial lines for what was, sadly, a lost cause.
"You and I both know that if you've got a kid drowning in a pool or dad having a heart attack, you don't care what the symbol on the side of that truck is when it gets to your house. You just want it to get there quick," said Welton Cadwell, Lake County Commissioner
Commissioner Cadwell does not have a bone to pick over the fire at the Bakers. But he says there are areas in the county where response times are too slow. And he insists the system is far too expensive.
"After 9/11, everybody assumed fire and police were hands off. No, can't touch it. Can't do anything different than what they want to do. Times have changed. We can't afford to do things the way we've done them in the past," Cadwell said.
Lake has a dozen municipal fire departments and EMS. That costs taxpayers $45 million a year. There are 42 fire stations and 400 paid firefighters. Some believe, by finding ways to combine those forces, they can cut several million from the bottom line.
But some of the city fire chiefs are suspicious. They don't want the cuts coming from their departments. They say they need every employee. And they won't give them up to the county without a fight.
"The reason they have the personnel and the numbers and the equipment they have, it's all based on need," said Chief Steve Sette of the Montverde
But the Montverde's fire chief admits some departments have overspent. And he's heard critics who complain when too many rescue squads show up at the same incident or accident.
"Well, don't you want this showing up at the house? Well, of course you would want the Careflight helicopter showing up at your house if it's you., right? It's about money. Its about dollars," said Jim Pierce of the Montverde Town Council.
That matters little to Pat and Ralph Baker, who lost it all. But they still have what's important, each other, and their other dog JP, who survived the fire. Still, now speaking from experience, they are concerned about the future of Lake's fire departments.
"I don't think you want to cut back on something that can save peoples lives," Pat Baker said.
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