Property owners in Polk County will see their annual fire protection and emergency services assessment go up another $15, the Polk Board of County Commissioners agreed on last month at a budget work session.
The fee hike, which will generate about $2 million per year, will help the embattled Polk County Fire Rescue Department implement some of the changes suggested by an outside investigation that followed a fatal fire last year.
Presently, residential property owners pay $191 per year for fire rescue services and, when approved, that would increase to $206 annually.
The final budget for the coming year is still being prepared, but the present Polk County Fire Rescue budget is about $92 million.
Interim Polk Fire Rescue Chief Robert Weech told commissioners last month that he wanted to initiate the five major points the investigation outlined, but the county board told him it couldn't fund them all in next year's budget.
Initiatives Weech wanted to put in place included hiring 27 new fire/rescue personnel, holding in-depth training sessions and hiring additional training staff, ensuring that each fire engine had a crew of three individuals with working communications equipment, obtaining additional tanker trucks, improving on basic fire-fighting skills with additional drills and working with the Polk Sheriff Office's 9-1-1 staff to improve communications — including having a Polk Fire Rescue staffer on site to facilitate communications with field personnel.
Weech said that the November fire that claimed the life of an elderly woman brought communication issues to the forefront of the department's needs.
“If we have a vehicle without an operating computer, it will be considered out of service,” he explained.
Weech also told commissioners that training and officer development were the issues he felt strongest about. He is proposing that the department implement 40-hour officer development classes that would total about 5,000 hours and would include battalion chiefs, captains and officer candidates as well as the rank and file staff. He's also asking for three more training officers to handle those classes. The classes would cost about $300,000 per year, he said.
Weech also asked the board for another $200,000 for improving the department's pager communication systems and to install media platforms and hardware which give the department another method of both internal communications and training sessions. The digital communications systems would be installed in all 50 fire stations across the county, he added.
The county board was already aware that the department is understaffed, but Weech reiterated it by formalizing his request for 27 new personnel — some firefighters and some emergency services staff. He proposed the county set aside $2 million for the personnel, which would be a permanent addition to the budget. Another $480,000 would be necessary to provide the new hires with the safety and operational equipment needed, he said.
Citing a lack of trained personnel, Weech assured the board he “is making some progress in hiring,” and added “we will go out and find them.” He also told the board that of its 50 units, only nine were limited to a two-member crew at this time.
Commissioner Bill Braswell asked if all firefighters were also paramedics and was told that they were not, but that the department was providing incentives for its personnel to obtain that additional certification.
If all the suggestions were to be implemented, a total of nearly $9 million in additional funds would be required, and the board directed Polk County Manager Jim Freeman to try to find another $1 million from the county budget to augment the $2 million the fire fee hike would generate.
That additional $3 million would cover increased training, improvements to the paging system, improve internal and external communications training and equipment and, lastly, hire the 27 personnel needed to fully staff the department.