Fire Department staffing increases also planned in next fiscal year as Emergency Services Department responds to findings of consulting firm’s report
In September 2017, as weather forecasters had Hurricane Irma on track to wreak severe damage on the Southwest Florida coast, county leaders and Venice City Council members clashed over the lack of an evacuation center in Venice that could withstand a major storm.
Since then, at the direction of the County Commission, the county’s Emergency Services Department staff has been researching a variety of options to remedy that situation.
On June 19, during the presentation of his department’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year, Emergency Services Director Rich Collins reported that the state has provided a $500,000 grant that will pay for the hardening of Taylor Ranch Elementary School, which is located at 2500 Taylor Ranch Trail in Venice, to withstand hurricanes.
In response to questions from Chair Charles Hines, Collins pointed to the addition of hurricane shutters to Taylor Ranch as a project that the grant will cover.
The Sarasota County School District has received a letter about the award, Collins noted.
A state team had worked with his staff, Collins explained, to identify the best prospects for new shelter space among the schools in the district.
When Commissioner Nancy Detert — who lives in Venice — asked whether the $500,000 would be sufficient for the work at Taylor Ranch, Collins said it would. If any funds are left over, he added, staff will use the money for other hardening projects.
By the 2020 hurricane season, Collins continued, the school should be available as an evacuation center. “That is our goal, to move quickly with the school district.”
In a related matter, Collins reported that county staff has been working with a company that uses artificial intelligence “to help us in real time, as a hurricane is approaching,” assess the potential for tidal surge and flooding, among other potential problems. Thus far, he said, the company has been achieving “upwards of 80% to 95% predictability at 24 hours out from the storm [strike].”
“We’ll be the first in the country to do this,” he said of launching the pilot program. “If it works well,” he told the commissioners, staff will discuss with them the potential of funding the system in the 2021 fiscal year budget for the Emergency Services Department.
Staff issues and demand for service
In comments about the proposed staffing levels for his department in the 2020 fiscal year, Collins referenced an in-depth, 20-month study undertaken of the Sarasota County Fire Department by Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI).
On March 13, the commissioners heard Stuart McElhaney, director of planning and strategic services for ESCI, make a presentation about the findings.
“One of the big issues is a lack of leadership, oversight, safety and staffing” on the three ladder trucks in the county, Collins said on June 25, referencing the ESCI report. Those units provide a number of services, such as oxygen for victims and search and rescue operations, he explained.
Additionally, staff “clearly identified” that having just two firefighters respond with an engine results in a significant reduction in effectiveness, especially given the higher volume of calls for the department in the past 10 to 15 years, he told the board. In 2018, the Fire Department received about 20,000 more calls than it did in 2008, Collins pointed out.
The ESCI report recommended that three people be assigned to each engine.
Staff has proposed adding numerous new positions to the Fire Department over a three-year period, Collins continued, to achieve the staffing level county leaders originally planned in 2011, before the Great Recession necessitated extensive paring of county expenses.
An extra firefighter will be assigned to the Station 1 engine in downtown Sarasota and to the Station 11 engine on Clark Road. A $200,000 increase in overtime will cover those additions, Collins told the board.
Beginning in the last quarter of the 2020 fiscal year, he said, a company officer also will join the Station 1 truck. The annual expense will be about $173,000, he noted.
Further, an extra EMS captain is needed on each shift; that staffing change will be implemented in the last quarter of FY20, as well, Collins pointed out.
Additionally in FY20, the Fire Department will upgrade two more of its engines to advanced life support (ALS) status, Collins said, bringing the total number of county ALS units to 13 out of the 22 engines.
Because of the operational changes, Collins continued, staff recommends an increase of about 1.1% in the annual fire assessment county residents and business owners pay. For a single family, the amount would rise from $6.99 to $7.07 per year, according to a slide Collins showed the board.
The commercial rate would climb from $18.53 to $18.73.
The extra revenue, he pointed out, would enable the Fire Department to stabilize its Economic Uncertainty Fund, which should be able to cover up to 60 days of operations in the event of an emergency.