In the wake of a Hillsborough County audit, three Hillsborough County volunteer fire departments have closed and the remaining three, including the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department, could be in jeopardy.
The stations in question -- Cork-Knights, North Brandon and Dover-Turkey Creek -- remain open, but are now manned only by career firefighters, county officials say.
At the Oct. 3 Hillsborough County Commission meeting, Hillsborough County Fire Chief Ron Rogers told commissioners that his department is taking a look at the continued viability of volunteer fire departments to determine if they will continue to operate under their current structure.
The audit of the volunteer stations raised concerns about the costs of operating the volunteer stations, the qualifications of the volunteers and stipends given to volunteers.
In addition, two volunteer stations -- Cork-Knights and Dover-Turkey Creek -- had not renewed their nonprofit statuses. And some stations refused to turn over their financial records despite a public records request.
Each of the six volunteer fire associations had a $49,950 annual contract with the county, which expired Sept. 30.
Because of lingering questions about accountibility, Rogers told commissioners that the Cork-Knights, Dover-Turkey Creek and North Brandon volunteer fire stations are no longer operating as volunteer stations. Their areas are being covered by career firefighters.
The remaining volunteer stations are located in Lutz, Bloomingdale and Sundance.
In the meantime, county administrator Mike Merrill said the county is reviewing the operations of the remaining three stations.
"We are not opposed to volunteer participation," said Merrill. "The issue is that the model we have now is not working. We do want to work out arrangements with volunteers to provide a workable solution including keeping associations in place but under a different model."
He said that model may include teaming volunteers up with career firefighters as part of a reserve program rather than operating separate volunteer stations.
Merrill said the county will take 30 days to look at the operations of the remaining volunteer stations and come back to the commission Nov. 15 with recommendations.
Rogers emphasized that he isn't targeting volunteer fire departments.
"Hillsborough County Fire Rescue started as all-volunteer in the 1950s," he said. "Volunteers will be a part of this organization going forward. But one of the things pointed out in audit is that the volunteer program is not free. About $1.5 million goes to volunteer operations each year."
He said he will meet with representatives of the volunteer associations and include them in the review process.
"I don't intend to shut them out," he said. "I want them to be part of the process."
Four of the volunteer associations were located in Commissioner Al Higginbotham's district and he said the lack of transparency among the volunteer stations concerns him.
"I was very distressed when I learned that nonprofit status has not been maintained in some cases even though they continued to solicit donations from the public," said Higginbotham. "And I want to make sure the message is communicated appropriately about public records. They have not been forthcoming with their funds and they are required to under statutes. I can’t tolerate that."
Commissioner Victor Crist, who said he served as a volunteer firefighter for five years, agreed.
"Accountibility and certification of volunteers is important," he said. "When I served there was always four full-time paid professionals on duty. That assured consistency in the quality of service."
At the same time, Crist said he understands the vital role volunteer departments play in a community.
"There are communities here in Hillsborough County, mostly rural, in which the volunteer fire department is very much a part of their identity. No paid department could ever come close to that. This isn’t an outright attack on volunteers. We're just trying to ensure taxpayer accountability," he said.
Pointing to the Lutz volunteer station, Commissioner Ken Hagan said the volunteer stations are a source of pride for the community.
"I know from experience how important volunteer fire stations are to many communities in Hillsborough County," he said. "These stations have been an integral part of their communities and have greatly improved the quality of life for these communities."
At the same time, he said the current structure for volunteer stations simply isn't working.
"I understand the need to change the current model and structure," he said. "The goal is not to eliminate volunteers but to make volunteer stations a sustainable operation. The audit was not pretty. We need to make improvements while supporting the volunteer stations that are doing good jobs."