SEBRING — After three years helping Highlands County upgrade and consolidate fire and emergency medical services, Public Safety Director Marc Bashoor hopes the county will keep improving and funding it.

When he retires Sept. 30, Bashoor said, the county will still have a significant amount of work to do.

“The foundation is built, but foundations don’t cover organizations,” Bashoor said Friday. “Roofs cover organizations. They need support.”

Funding

Conversion of an all-volunteer fire department into a volunteer and paid fire/EMS system was based on the Fitch Study, an evaluation that came about after fire chiefs at the county’s 10 volunteer departments asked for help. In some cases, Bashoor said, departments’ first-response engines were nearly 30 to 40 years old.

“People had become accustomed to doing without,” Bashoor said. “It all costs money, and money doesn’t grow on trees.”

As seven-year head of fire services for Prince George County, Maryland — 1 million people east of Washington, D.C. — he saw a $180 million fire services budget. He spent five years as emergency services director in a West Virginia county with a $4 million total county budget — less than Highlands County’s fire assessment raises each year. Highlands County Fire Rescue needs more to keep up with needs.

“Stop worrying about how much it costs. Start worrying about what you can’t do without,” Bashoor said. “When you worry about how much it costs, eventually you will do without.”

A municipal services taxing unit (MSTU) might work better to raise funds for the fire service, he said, versus the current combination of assessment and General Fund monies.

Basic needsWhen Bashoor came aboard in 2018, the volunteer firefighter roster had 182 names, one of whom was deceased. Culling the lists pared it down to 105, of whom 60 ran less than two calls per month, 20 ran two to four calls a month, 17 ran four to 10 calls and eight ran more than 10 calls. Full-time paid firefighters have helped cover the gap, he said.

Of Highlands County’s 34 engines and tankers, including four new ones already received or ordered, 18 should be taken off the road, according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, and another six be relegated to secondary response, Bashoor said.

Of the remaining 10, one will be too old in 2023, he added, followed by two more in 2024, two in 2025 and one more in each 2026, 2027 and 2029. To keep up, he said the county has to order two new engines per year, every year. There’s no plan right now to do that, he said, so he’ll recommend putting $150,000 per year into an apparatus fund. It’s not enough to keep up, but it’s a start.

All of Highlands County’s departments now log calls on a single database, which helps the county track its needs. Bashoor said he now has a year’s worth of data to both plan for needs and demonstrate actual needs.

He also recommends more extensive water systems, with more hydrants, to help the planned new stations provide more protection.

Finally, Bashoor advises that the county look into automatic mutual-aid agreements with Avon Park and Sebring city departments to ensure coverage, especially on parts of U.S. 27 where city limits and county coverage converge.

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