Compromise Reached On Improving Fire-Rescue In Substandard Areas Of Palm Beach County, Florida

he 8 percent of Palm Beach County residents who live in areas with fire-rescue services that don't meet proposed countywide staffing requirements, and people who visit those places, could see improved service in coming years.

A compromise approved Tuesday by the County Commission calls for those communities voluntarily to bring their fire-rescue services up to minimum, county-set standards, mainly with regard to the number of personnel on various units.

Jamie Titcomb, executive director of the League of Cities, said he thinks the time allows municipal governments to figure out the best way to pay for and carry out improvements.

The municipalities agreed to changes, modified by a go-slow approach advocated by Titcomb, because of a threat that the County Commission might place a referendum question before voters asking whether they want minimum standards.

Armand Nault, an official with the politically powerful Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County, raised the referendum issue, telling commissioners and city officials to "remember the driving force of why we're here."

County Fire-Rescue Chief Herman Brice and the union support minimum standards. The cheapest way for some municipalities to improve their fire-rescue services would be to go with the county agency, which would increase the number of members of the union.

Unresolved was the issue of who should dispatch fire-rescue units.

Brice said a unified, central system would improve public safety by ensuring that the closest fire or rescue unit would respond to a call, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.

That means if a Boca Raton unit were closer to an accident or fire west of Boca Raton, the city unit would be sent. If a county unit normally serving unincorporated Palm Beach County were closer to an emergency in the city of Delray Beach, it would go.

League of Cities members oppose such a plan, arguing that they've already invested in their systems, and they're happy with the results.

Brice asked the commission to approve at least $1 million in his department's next budget to give incentives to cities to join the county dispatch system.

Commissioners said they can't decide until they have more information about all budget requests.

Ultimately, countywide dispatch of fire-rescue units would mean adding 22 employees and $2.1 million a year to the dispatch center budget of $5.2 million and $3.1 million for equipment and other fixed costs.

As part of the switch, Brice wants general county taxes to cover the cost of fire-rescue dispatching. Now, it is paid for out of the special taxing district that charges only people who get fire-rescue service from his agency.

County Commissioner Mary McCarty said such double taxation wouldn't be fair to residents of cities such as Boca Raton and Delray Beach.

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