County contract with Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department terminated

On February 14th, Hernando County Board of County Commissioners agreed to terminate their agreement with Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department that had started on June 10th 2014. The termination came after substantial amounts of evidence of mismanagement surfaced. Given Hernando Beach’s location, relative to all of Hernando County, it proved difficult early on to provide services like fire and police to that area; and as a result, a volunteer fire department was created.

Originally, as outlined in their agreement, The Department would have to provide services using joint protocols developed with Hernando County Fire and Rescue, maintain a permanent base of operations, and have the correct equipment and trained personnel ready to go whenever they were dispatched. Subject to the availability of funds on the county's end, due compensation was designated by the services performed, the equipment needed and used, and who all performed the services that they were called upon.

Also outlined, The Department needs to submit a complete financial audit detailing any expenditures and they must also send in daily staffing reports.

Therein lies the first set of problems brought up by county staff. Not only was the department failing to send these in daily, they have failed to respond to requests for this for the last two years- even though they were given ample notification and deadline extensions. This ‘lack of information,’ a council member pointed out, proves problematic for the simple reason that dispatchers need to know who is on duty and where. As a result of the failure to provide this information, on July 29th 2016 a severe miscommunication led to a ‘life-threatening’ medical emergency not being responded to properly. The Department of Volunteer firefighters also failed to provide an expenses report to the county for independent audit- a citizen commented that finally, they won’t be able to ‘cook their books.’

Along with staffing level reports, contractual quarterly reports were said to have contained ‘questionable information’ regarding response times due to lack of radio communication. ‘Inconsistent following of dispatching procedures could and have proven to be harmful to those in need of emergency assistance.’ The Department, on several occasions, has failed to report as either on route or already arrived at the scene and has even failed to respond to emergency calls entirely. This can impede certified medical personnel from arriving in a timely manner and can potentially cause them to not have the help they may need. This could result in the reckless endangerment of the lives this department has volunteered to protect.

Effective immediately, the Council agreed to terminate the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department. They were ordered to cease any operations with regards to what their contract had previously outlined and made to cancel any orders of equipment unless it dealt with easing the transition of duties back to Hernando County itself. Given some of the testimonies during the meeting, it appears that although the services these volunteers provided were greatly appreciated, the people of Hernando Beach respect allowing the professionals to do their job.

The final vote was 3 - 1 to terminate the agreement with Chairman Wayne Dukes voting against it. Dukes stated, “The problem is folks we all know looking back there has been some bad leadership, but the county has to be responsible for some of that because we were technically the QA of the contract and we let it happen. It’s our fault… We got some bad eggs, but when you assume everything is okay that’s not a good thing.”

The vote allowed a 60-day transition period and directed the County’s Purchasing Department to take action to account for all inventory and documentation at the property. On Feb. 15th, HCFR began operations out of the volunteer fire department facility with a fully staffed advanced life support engine on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

With the termination of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department contract, comes the reality that a financially strapped county department now must fully service Hernando Beach. Residents should expect to begin paying for county service starting on October 1, 2017.

At a workshop earlier this month, the commission reached a consensus in funding the county department through a hybrid MSBU/MSTU fee with the stipulation that the MSTU will be scaled down overtime. The MSTU would be voted on in September 2017. Chances are, there will be a substantial increase, even without the additional coverage area of Hernando Beach.

We reached out to the county following the December 6, 2016 meeting when the county first addressed the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department failings, asking them if there was a cost estimate for taking over service to Hernando Beach. They did not have a cost estimate at that time. We reached out again following the February 14th meeting to find out what the cost estimate is for taking over service to Hernando Beach and received no response.

Julie Maglio contributed to this report.

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