Cities Denounce Palm Beach County, Florida Plan To Standardize Fire Protection

A controversial Palm Beach County plan that would force fire departments to standardize the equipment they use and the number of people on duty each day comes under fire again this week.

To irate city leaders, it's an infringement that diminishes their ability to run their own fire departments and could cost residents more money. Some county officials see it as a way to improve service and assure that city fire departments can handle big emergencies.

The county's proposal, crafted by Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Chief Herman Brice with input from cities, calls for a countywide referendum creating minimum standards for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue and all city fire departments. Brice will present his plan to county commissioners Tuesday.

With commissioners' approval, the referendum creating the fire standards likely would be on the November 2004 ballot.

Although a decision on the referendum isn't imminent, the Palm Beach County League of Cities is rallying members to fight the proposal. Boca Raton has set aside $100,000 for a possible legal challenge and will team with Delray Beach and Boynton Beach should the proposal go to court.

"The problem is that the county has provided a poor level of service, and they're looking to us to bail them out," said Delray Beach City Commissioner Jon Levinson.

Under Brice's plan, which was drawn up after consulting city fire chiefs and city managers, every fire department in the county would have no fewer than 11 people working each day for even the smallest departments -- two fire engines with three people each, two ambulances with two people each, and an incident commander. It also calls for departments to have certain kinds of equipment, from fire trucks to radios, and assure that the equipment is compatible with other departments'.

Cities such as Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach already meet those standards. But other, smaller cities in Palm Beach County might not, and a county mandate could create a burden.

Should the new standards be implemented, a nine-person committee would oversee departments' compliance with the new rules, as well as oversee how data such as response times is collected and reported.

Brice told the Palm Beach County League of Cities on Wednesday that he thought cities should be able to work together to meet minimum standards. He said the county's residents should expect to have the same service, no matter where they are.

"If you're in Lake Worth and traveling to Jupiter on I-95, ... you should expect the same level of service," Brice said.

On Jan. 27, county commissioners also will consider similarly contentious proposals for a countywide fire dispatching system and a plan to have the closest units respond to fires or accidents -- even if it means crossing boundaries into a neighboring community.

Those issues also would likely be put to voters in a referendum, if county commissioners agree to do that.

City leaders have opposed the idea of a countywide fire dispatch center because many communities already have their own dispatch services and don't want to pay for a system they might not use.

County Commissioner Mary McCarty said she is concerned about some departments not being up to par but also worried about interfering with cities' rights to do things as they see fit.

"That's where I feel we're walking on thin ice," McCarty said.

Richard Radcliffe, a Greenacres city councilman who is chairman of the League of Cities' committee examining level-of-service issues, said he thinks the county has not fully thought out its proposal.

"There's absolutely no discussion of money," Radcliffe said. "There are things that are left out."

Radcliffe thinks the county and cities should be able to hammer out an agreement without taking it to voters.

"It's bad government," Radcliffe said. "It's trying to solve a problem with a referendum."