Florida Volunteers, Sheriff's Office Compete to Provide Fire Services

LAUDERDALE-BY-THE-SEA, Fla.-- Reporting to a gas leak in shorts and deck shoes. Using a fire truck to trim palm trees. Sending crews rushing to an emergency rescue -- of a dog in a canal.

Such are the complaints against the town's volunteer fire department.

Volunteer firefighters don't consider such incidents problems, but rather examples of neighbors helping neighbors.

However, the Broward Sheriff's Office's Department of Fire Rescue -- the town's other fire service -- considers such behavior dangerous.

The battle between departments has played out for months in front of town commissioners and residents. Who should provide fire protection: volunteers or professionals?

The red-hot issue spread through the town of 7,000 people recently when volunteers proposed squeezing out paid firefighters to take over fire calls for the entire seaside community. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is one of the few Broward County towns with a volunteer fire department, along with Coral Springs and Plantation.

Tonight at 6, both volunteers and professionals will meet at City Hall, 4501 Ocean Drive, for a fire service workshop to discuss the issues.

Fire service wasn't an issue until annexation in 2001 nearly doubled the size of the town.

Volunteers had exclusively served the original section of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

Annexation of the area known as South Beach brought with it the county's paid fire service.

The plan was for the new area to keep their paid service and the original town to keep the volunteers. That plan began to fall apart when the annexed area was charged $522 a year in fire protection fees and the older part of town only $92.

After attempts to merge the two fire services failed, commissioners decided to adopt one fee for the town, $260 per household.

Now, volunteer Fire Chief Jim Silverstone, also a town commissioner, said his 60-person department is ready to handle fire calls without help from professionals. Silverstone said the town passed a resolution last year that said the volunteers could take over if they are fully trained, certified and their service is "fiscally prudent."

Silverstone said his department would be able to provide services for $500,000 a year, compared with $2 million a year for the professional fire rescue.

Volunteers, who have served the area since the 1950s, would keep the hometown image residents have come to expect, Silverstone said.

"A lot of fire departments, if your cat is stuck in a tree, they won't answer," he said. "But we will."

Todd LeDuc, deputy fire chief for the paid service, said volunteers aren't ready to go it alone.

"No one has got hurt or killed yet, but it's a matter of time," LeDuc said.

John Frailey, Lauderdale-by-the Sea district chief for the professional firefighters, registered 12 of 17 complaint letters against the volunteers.

According to the complaint letters:

Aug. 29 : Silverstone allegedly went into a "potentially explosive environment wearing a T-shirt, shorts and deck shoes" to investigate a gas leak. The building had been evacuated by professional firefighters. Silverstone said he arrived first to the scene and evacuated people standing too close to the building. He was dressed inappropriately because he came directly from work, a few blocks down the street. Silverstone said he was asked to enter the building by Sheriff's Office fire rescue crews. June 27: Volunteers used a fire engine to trim palm trees, a misuse, Frailey said. A neighbor reported a fireman "lying on his back trimming a palm tree with a chainsaw." Silverstone said it was a training drill for rookies to practice with chainsaws, skills that are used in the event of hurricane cleanup, he said.

Sept. 23, 2005: Volunteers created a safety hazard when they sent fire crews on an emergency call to rescue a dog in a canal. Silverstone said he has no regrets about rescuing the dog. He said the pet belonged to Jim Pollock, volunteer assistant fire chief.

Mayor Oliver Parker said he plans to ask each department about their role, ongoing problems and the cost of their services.

"They need to show they can do the job," said Parker of the volunteers. "Whether they can show us that, I don't know."

Residents have mixed opinions.

Karen Webster, 60, said she likes having both departments.

"If one's busy at least you are going to have the other," said Webster, who lives in the annexed part of town.

Gil Morrow, 47, who lives behind the volunteer firehouse, said volunteers are ready to handle calls alone.

"They are fully capable to handling the area," Morrow said. " From what I see, they are doing a good job."

Republished with permission of The Sun-Sentinel.

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