Florida Chief Terminates Volunteer Contract

LAUDERDALE BY THE SEA, Fla.-- The Town Commission plans to hold a special meeting Friday to discuss sudden changes to its fire-rescue services.

On Tuesday, Joseph Lello, chief of the Broward Sheriff's Office Department of Fire Rescue, terminated the contract allowing volunteers to work alongside professionals. Lello said the Sheriff's office was concerned about safety and leadership problems.

Without the agreement, volunteers, who have served the town for more than 50 years, can't fight fires.

The town pays the Sheriff's Office $2 million a year in a separate contract to provide fire-rescue service.

The Sheriff's Office and volunteers have been feuding about who should provide services to the town. Volunteers have said they can provide fire-rescue services at a cheaper price. There are about 60 volunteer firefighters.

The Sheriff's Office has complained that the volunteer fire department has sent crews to an emergency rescue of a dog in a canal, used a fire truck to trim palm trees and sometimes don't wear safety gear. Volunteers say they haven't violated safety procedures or rules.

Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Silverstone said he was "shocked and surprised" to get the letter announcing Lello was ending the partnership.

"This department has never been safer," said Silverstone, who also is a town commissioner. "This town has never been safer."

Town Manager Bob Baldwin said Silverstone and Commissioner Jerome McIntee, who also is deputy volunteer fire chief, requested the meeting, which will begin at 7 p.m. at town hall.

"I would hope that we would be able to work it out between the volunteers and [the professionals] but the town's not going to make that decision," said Baldwin.

Lello said the Sheriff's Office didn't end the contract because of the volunteers' performance. He said volunteer leaders weren't following regulations.

"There is no compromise when it comes to safety," Lello said.

The county plans to invite volunteer firefighters to join its reserve unit. Volunteers would be stationed at the Bougainvilla Drive firehouse.

On Wednesday, Silverstone stood near that firehouse but wasn't allowed inside because Lello ordered that all volunteers leave.

Instead, he watched as professional crews checked fire engines and gear. Locks were also changed.

Silverstone said he thinks professionals were worried they would lose their contract to the volunteers who came better prepared to meetings and have the backing of residents. "They weren't going to leave gracefully because it looked like the volunteer fire department beat them," he said.

Republished with permission of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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