The City Council approved an increase in impact fees to help the department improve response times.
Based on an intensive analysis of response times, the Palm Coast Fire Department recommends building a new fire station in Seminole Woods and creating a “mini” residential station with limited staffing on the west end of Whiteview Parkway.
To accomplish those and other goals, the Palm Coast City Council on July 7 voted 5-0 on a second and final reading to increase the impact fees to make sure the city’s growth will bear more of the burden to pay for the increased need for fire service. Each new home built after about Oct. 7 will now pay a one-time fee of $367 up from $223.
Commercial development will also pay an increased rate of 59 cents per square foot, up from 28 cents. Mark Langello and Annamaria Abad, of the Flagler Home Builders Association, have expressed concern that the rate is too high for some sectors of commercial development.
Mayor Milissa Holland was supportive of the increases, in part because of a personal experience. She said her daughter had a seizure one day, and so Holland called 911 for the first time in her life.
“Those minutes stop and seem like they’re in slow motion, as every second ticks away, waiting for your loved one, waiting for the first responder to show up,” Holland said during the June 16 City Council meeting. “It truly saved her life, and I’m very grateful. It brought to light the importance of that moment. You may not always need it, but when you do, it is truly life and death. First responders, you truly are special people.”
According to Fire Chief Jerry Forte, the department arrives to an emergency within seven minutes about 75% of the time, depending on which part of the city the call comes from. But the city’s goal is 85%.
Response time has been a top priority of the City Council since the beginning. The city was incorporated in 1999, in part because of dissatisfaction with the county’s response to the disastrous 1998 wildfires. In 2002, the City Council set the goal of 85%, but the funding has not kept up with the population growth, according to Forte.
“In the last 10 years, suburban sprawl has occurred, and we’re getting more calls that are further away from the stations,” Forte said in an interview with the Palm Coast Observer. “We know we’re not getting to all the calls we are supposed to be by design. … We’re not hitting the goals.”
Whiteview Parkway and Seminole Woods areas, for example, have pockets with an average response time of up to 12 minutes.
Other priorities to be addressed in the next 10 years, as needed based on population, are a mini on Belle Terre Boulevard (south of State Road 100), a new fire station on Colbert Lane and a new station in Palm Coast Park, which is in the northwest part of the city.
Forte was particularly excited about the idea of the mini stations that are proposed first for Whiteview Parkway and later for Belle Terre Boulevard. He said he got the idea on a recent vacation to California.
“I was driving down the street, and I saw a house with a very large garage, and I thought it looked a little silly,” he recalled.
Upon further inspection, he realized it was a mini fire station. He realized that this could be a less expensive way to solve some problems in Palm Coast. Data shows that most of the calls for service occur between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays. So a mini station on Whiteview could be staffed just during those times, he said, at a quarter of the cost of a full station.
If development west of U.S. 1 explodes like it’s supposed to in the next decade, the land for the mini station could be sold on Whiteview, and a full station could be built west of U.S. 1.
Holland's praise of the Fire Department was echoed by others on the City Council, including Eddie Branquinho, who told Forte, "Make your badge my shield."
Forte has also worked to change the culture at the Palm Coast Fire Department. He has empowered everyone in the department to ask questions and use their individual skills.
“The people on the trucks have the power to change the destiny on the call,” he said. That means if a firefighter responds to a call in which a resident had a heart attack while putting up hurricane shutters, the firefighter has the authority to not only help the resident get into the ambulance but also to help finish putting up the hurricane shutters. He encourages the firefighters to follow their “gut feelings.”
Also, some policies have been in place for decades — long before Forte was promoted to chief.
“When you get new firefighters come in and question operational policies, and we don’t have a good answer for them, maybe it’s time to change them,” Forte said.
For example, it was department policy to wash the trucks every morning.
“That’s redundant, mundane,” Forte said. “If the truck isn’t dirty, now you’ve got people who are washing the truck just because there’s a rule. That was so dumb. I got rid of that a couple of years ago with the policy group.”
Another policy was that you can’t go to bed until 9 p.m. The policy was likely instituted to promote camaraderie time, but Forte said today’s generation is different.
“They just like to go and plug in, get some homework done,” Forte said. “So now, it’s any time after the work day, they can have private time to decompress. It’s a way to reduce their stress level.”
Another example: When testing hoses, up to 10,000 gallons of water would sometimes be used. A firefighter asked why, and now procedure is adjusted to use only about 100 gallons of water to accomplish the same task.
Forte said he promotes a family atmosphere, rather than the old tradition of excluding the new recruits.
“Thirty years ago, it was, ‘Keep your mouth shut, don’t ask questions,’” Forte recalled. “Today’s a lot different. They’re welcomed in like family. … They’ve been through the training, and our job is to make them successful and not belittle them.”
He added, “If we don’t figure out how to get them on board, you’re going to be replacing them in three years. It starts on their first day.”
To remind himself that each firefighter deserves respect, Forte has shelves of firefighters’ framed family pictures outside his office.
“You walk past those pictures every day,” Forte said. “If I make a decision, I better be able to explain it.”