HERNANDO BEACH — The former Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department had become quite a mess, with allegations of financial malfeasance, failure to respond to all emergency calls quickly — or at all — and lots of purported accounting and paperwork irregularities.
That’s not to mention reports that these “volunteers” were being paid.
But that was then, and this is now. Hernando County Fire Rescue took over the Shoal Line Boulevard firehouse, designated Station 6, and things appear to be going swimmingly these days.
Staffed by Hernando Fire Rescue personnel and equipment since the beginning of 2017, the Station 6 county firefighters and paramedics have bonded with the community, said Chief Alex Lopez, public information officer with the county’s fire service.
Given all the trouble during its years as a volunteer department, the county service wasn’t sure what to expect going in, said Lopez, but three years later things are “night and day.”
“We took on the challenge and now we’re very much part of the community,” said Lopez. “The feedback from the community is that they are so proud of their fire department.”
In addition to bringing confidence to the community, the new department has upped its level of protection, adding advanced life support capabilities, which is was one of the “major concerns” residents had in the past, said Lopez.
That capability came in handy recently, said Diane Greenwell, president of the Hernando Beach Property Owner’s Association. She called 911 to report a reckless driver. Moments later, there was a five-car crash that required a helicopter evacuation.
“In less than four minutes we had a professional fire rescue crew and ALS on the scene,” said Greenwell, using the acronym for advanced life support EMS service. “It was a full response team, including guys who weren’t on duty who showed up.”
Greenwell said it’s a big difference than in past, when volunteers were slow to respond to requests for fire or emergency medical assistance or showed up in pajama bottoms or shorts.
“You couldn’t even be sure they were firefighters,” she said of the former fire volunteers.
Of the current emergency crew, she said all of Hernando Beach is happy to have them.
“Our community is telling us they are very glad they are here — that it’s good to have real people that live here and we can count on being here for us if we need them,” Greenwell said.
It goes beyond professional service, Greenwell said, noting the station crewmembers are active members of the community, at events like the recent cardboard boat regatta. Firefighters also are involved with area youth organizations, she said.
That the station is becoming such a good neighbor is important, said Lopez, adding the Station 6 is engaging in the community, getting involved in several events, hosting community meetings, and participating in holiday happenings like Christmas light displays. The station held an open house and fall festival in October for the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association. Visitors toured the station and its equipment. Arts and crafts were displayed and children had their faces painted.
“The community is great,” said Bryce Goeden, a firefighter-EMT assigned to Station 6. “We are getting a lot of support.”
Gabe Croft, a medic at the station, said working in Hernando Beach has been great from a professional standpoint, and a bond has formed with the community.
“We’re really thankful for the community and the support we’ve gotten here,” he said.
Julie Rice, a real estate agent and 10-year Hernando Beach resident, said things couldn’t have worked out better for the community.
“It’s so much better and we’re so much more secure,” said Rice. “Everybody feels better having them next door.”
It’s been a healing process for the community, said Lopez, but the community in the first-response area served by the station, which includes Aripeka to Weeki Wachee, can look forward to ever-improving services. The station recently added a rescue boat to its equipment, which means faster response times for on-the-water emergencies.
In the past, fire rescue would have to standby at a dock or ramp after the Sheriff’s Office or state wildlife officers with boats could ferry a person in need of medical attention to shore, said Lopez. Having the boat means faster response times.
“It’s a huge increase in the level of service for people who live in Hernando Beach or people visiting Hernando Beach,” said Lopez.
Coming soon to the station is a new community room for area residents to use. Architects are working on the design now and it is expected work will be completed this year. The station also is being reinforced to make it more resistant to hurricanes and storms, said Lopez.