COVID-19 impacts county commission’s decision on fire rescue’s 5-year plan

In a perfect world, the 5-year plan presented by Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) Chief Harold Theus to the county commission on April 14th would be easy to implement.

Chief Theus had all of the statistics and budget numbers to back his plans and ideas that reached to the year 2025.

Out-of-county transfers have doubled, the chief told the commission. “Because we have had more availability in taking a two or three hour transfers,” he said, the county has been able to capitalize by handling those transfers and earned $1.4 million in billing revenue.

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Chief Theus explained that the UF Health and other local hospitals are drawing patients from out of the county because of their reputation for treatments. And additional personnel and trucks would allow the ACFR to raise that income level.

Currently, the ACFR oversees  963 squares miles out of 16 locations, Theus explained. Some ambulance EMS only, some fire stations and some both.

The chief explained Average Unit Hour Utilization: how many seconds rescue units are committed to a call versus available. 

The current 40 percent number means rescue crews are committed to calls 10 out of 24 hours on a shift.

Over 35 percent starts to affect burnout and errors and sleep deprivation and that doesn’t include filing reports, work at the yard, work done on vehicles.

“Anything over 35 percent becomes a big concern and a (signal) that it’s time to put another rescue unit in,” chief said.

Right now call loads are decreasing because of the stay-at-home order, but it won’t remain that way, the chief reported. “The call load dropped by 16 percent in last 30 days,” he said.

The chief’s goal: never be in a position of not having a rescue available.

Chief Theus praised the billing staff because billable amounts are going up. The more efficient the ambulance billing staff, the less citizens have to pay.

“Even with 400 less transports, we increased revenue,” he said.

His wish list to the BOCC is to add a rescue unit, add a budget line item to support the cadet program which develops homegrown talent and recruitment, add a budget line item to keep the drone program afloat. A lot of programs have been operating on grants and out of the general operating budget.

“Need a line item to invest into the equipment,” he said. “Funding to reimburse employees for educational expenses.”

He’d like to add several positions including district chiefs who are more than call organizers.

“Take the 7th district chief and add two more to have them on duty 24 hours a days, 7 days a week,” chief said. So they can of get control over management, accountability and training.

As UF Health continues to build prominence in the state, and the transfer business is going to continue to go up, Chief Theus proposed hiring a transfer coordinator.

By fiscal year 2025 he’d like to consolidate the two stations Windsor and Cross Creek.

There were three stories in February about one station fire departments that couldn’t afford their fire departments anymore, he told the commissioners. “That trend is going to continue.”

The state has increased demands on volunteer training and equipment, he said and suggested the county get ahead of the problem

“Be on the front end rather than a rural fire department calling us and saying even with your money we can’t afford to do it,” he said.

“My proposal is not a knock of our rural contractors who do a great job,” he said “Fundraising is not what it used to be.”

When the presentation was done, commissioners had questions.

Commissioner Ken Cornell wanted to be able to approve all of the chief’s ideas but he said, “With every business and taxpayer I talked to, March has changed everything,” he said about the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I’m not ready to give my blessing.”

Commissioner Mike Byerly echoed the sentiment. “It’s too complex to vote on today.”

A back and forth about funding bounced between millage rates and an increase in fire assessments.

“I would like to but I’m not prepared to move forward with a 10 percent agreement in fire assessment,” Cornell said.

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson mentioned the decline in tourist funds, gas purchases and people’s ability to pay.

“We look at other parts of the budget, we are going to have much bigger problems,” he said.

“Commercial values and commercial taxpayers are going to have such a great difficulty,” Hutchinson predicted.

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler suggested the commission, “Proceed with caution.”

Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he was worried about the COVID-19 fiscal impact on citizens losing jobs.

“It’s tough times,” he said. “We should go with caution. I’d like to see another proposal,” Chestnut said. “With the current situation. See an alternative to moving forward to add an increase to a fire assessment would be detrimental to all lot of people who don’t have an income right now.”

And Chief Theus was sent back to the drawing board.

County Manager Michelle Lieberman said with so many unknowns in the economy, “We will build in necessities in the 2021,” she said. “Necessities but provide options to fund those.

“Hopefully through that process, there may be more stimulus for citizens that make this a moot point.”

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