Volunteer fire departments may be a thing of the past in Hillsborough County.
A proposal that goes before the Hillsborough County Commission today, Nov. 15, calls for discontinuing “the use of volunteers to staff primary apparatus at the remaining volunteer stations,” including the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department, 4705 Bloomingdale Ave., Valrico, according to a report from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
That plan also calls on the commission to agree to a budget amendment of $5.24 million to hire 78 new career firefighters to staff the county’s six volunteer fire departments.
The proposal also outlines the creation of a Reserve Responder Program that would enable some volunteers to continue to be of service to their communities. That program would have its own guidelines and could serve as a pathway to a career position for some volunteers. Its purpose is to “ensure the continuation of volunteerism in the fire service,” according to the county report.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Chief Ron Rogers said times have changed and it's time for Fire Rescue to change along with them.
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“(It is) a program that really made sense 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Rogers said. “It gradually has less and less logic. The complexity of the types of calls we run now is much different than when I started my career 30 years ago.”
That complexity calls for experience and advanced training – something volunteers often lack, he added.
The plan calls for formalizing the use of volunteers throughout the county and making sure that no stations are fully staffed by volunteer personnel alone, Rogers said.
The county’s existing nonprofit volunteer associations won’t be asked to dissolve. Instead, those organizations will be asked to step into a supporting role, similar to that of the county’s Friends of Libraries and Friends of the Parks groups.
“We’re trying to keep the organizations involved,” Rogers said.
The proposal to revamp staffing at the county’s six volunteer fire stations comes on the heels of a Sept. 19 Fire Rescue Performance Audit report. That report highlighted a number of concerns related to the stations, including:
- An increasing cost to the county to keep volunteer stations going
- The level of experience and qualification of volunteer firefighters
- A lack of guidelines that spell out the “roles and responsibilities of volunteer associations, the procedures that these have to follow, and the information to be provided by the volunteer associations to HCFR management.”
- A lack of communication between the county and the volunteer associations
If approved, the plan would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. The reserve firefighter program would be kicked off at that time, as well, Rogers said, adding that it will continue to evolve over time.
Earlier this year, the county had six operational volunteer fire departments. Three have ceased operations in recent months and are now staffed by career personnel working overtime schedules. Those stations are:
- North Brandon (ceased operations on Oct. 1)
- Dover-Turkey Creek (ceased operations on Oct. 1)
- Cork/Knights (ceased operations on Sept. 27)
The County Commission will hear the proposal during its Nov. 15 meeting at County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. The presentation has a time-certain spot on the county’s agenda of 2:15 p.m.
"It's (volunteerism) really the foundation of our department," Rogers said. "It's just time for a change (in how it's done)."
Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department Chief Van Tisdale was unavailable for comment but has participated in county meetings regarding the new role of the volunteers.
What do you think about the proposal? Should the county keep volunteer fire departments or move forward with adding more career positions?