Pasco Fire Rescue staff expresses concerns as commission denies millage hike

Pasco Fire Rescue staffers said the solution to lengthy response times is more stations, trucks and personnel.

DADE CITY — In a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke, every second counts, and Pasco County is falling behind in response time for such emergencies, fire rescue staffers told the County Commission in asking for a millage rate increase.

At the same meeting, county budget director Robert Goehrig gave a presentation on the final budget numbers and commissioners voted 5-0 for no change in operating (7.6076) or fire MSTU (1.8036) millage rates.

Union representatives spoke during public comment on the need to allow the millage rate for the Fire Rescue Municipal Services Taxing Unit to climb 0.34 mills to fund service improvements.

Pasco’s population is more than 600,000 and growing rapidly, and the department answered more than 77,000 calls last year. About 38,000 were responded to in more than 10 minutes, and 17,000 of those calls were responded to in more than 15 minutes.

“When seconds matter, 15 minutes is unacceptable,” said Dixon Phillips, a representative of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4420. The solution, several of the first responders said, is more stations, trucks and personnel. And that means that if Pasco is to be a premier county in the state, it must do more.

Commissioner Jack Mariano said after the morning commission session that he recognizes that Fire Rescue wanted to get everything in its budget, but they have gotten some things they needed such as new stations.

What they ought to do is move ambulances around to cover areas that are not covered when an ambulance goes out on a call, he said.

“Our firefighters and EMS teams have done a phenomenal job for many, many years,” Mariano said. “Chief, you have done a great job leading everybody every step of the way. We are striving for premier every step of the way. We respect the job you guys do, but with the budget we’re working on, we may not get it all this year but we’ll get it next year.”

The first responders said they were upset with the commission for not being so supportive of increasing the millage rate.

“This millage rate is not a tax increase, it’s a beneficial thing for public safety,” Walter Price said. “We need this for safety.”

County Administrator Dan Biles said the board has done a lot for the Fire Rescue system and is adding service and facilities.

“Effectively, you’re adding two new engines, two new rescues and two new fire stations,” he said. “We’re also recommending you also add another rescue at Station 30. With the new budget, with the recommendation that we’re making, you’re still adding three new rescues to your system. You’re adding a significant amount of capability in your fire program. Not necessarily everything that the fire department wants, but I think at this point you’re in a sustainable business model today, especially with the 12% increase in value.”

New rescues should help with utilization rates and response times, Biles said, and they will be coming online next year.

Adding another rescue right away causes a problem with training capabilities and whether the county can actually get people trained in the fiscal year. Those are some of the limits, Biles added, and not just funding. There will be even more building permits in 2022, he said, and that will help with funding.

Massive growth, more needs

Fire Chief Scott Cassin said outside the meeting that the county’s explosive growth is affecting the agency and its ability to serve the public.

“Some of the things, specifically, are increased response times,” he said, because of traffic.

“The crews in ambulances and firetrucks have gotten busier, to the point where we’re exceeding national thresholds that we use to monitor how busy our crews are,” Cassin said.

That leads to burnout, stress and “those type of things that we don’t want to have in our agency.”

The county has to turn to other municipalities and counties for help sometimes.

“There are certain things that we cannot provide with the resources we have, such as marine rescue,” Cassin said. “We have no capabilities to do water rescue or (water) firefighting, for that matter.”

He said they have to rely on the sheriff’s office or the Coast Guard or other fire departments like Pinellas County.

They don’t have a hazardous materials team in the county, he added. “In any major incident, we have to rely on mutual aid, typically from Hillsborough County and Sumter County.”

Robert Fuerst, the public information officer for local 4420, sounded disappointed.

“The unfortunate thing here is that they hired Fire Chief Cassin to make an assessment of what we needed and they out-of-hand dismissed it,” Fuerst said. “I think we’ll probably get there, but it’ll just take longer time.”