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Indian River Shores again pondering fire engine staffing

INDIAN RIVER SHORES — The Indian River Shores Town Council, along with its new Public Safety Department Chief Rich Rosell, is meeting this morning to re-visit the issue of staffing the town’s fire and emergency medical services.

Public safety managers a year ago told the Town Council that the Shores was at risk of being downgraded in its Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating – which impacts homeowner insurance rates – because of the way the town handles staffing of fire engines and ambulances.

When last evaluated in 2007, the Town scored a 4 on a 1-to-10 scale with a 1 being the best and a 10 being the worst.

The Town’s score is roughly the same as other areas of the county covered by Indian River County Fire Rescue.

“The workshop is for the ISO representative to clearly explain what the ISO Risk Assessment is and how Public Safety staffing affects the overall assessment. The ISO has not yet done the assessment,” said Town Manager Robbie Stabe, who served as the Town’s Public Safety Director before being promoted to the Town’s top job.

At issue is the way the Shores handles calls when fire engines and ambulances are required to respond.

Due to the mostly triple-trained nature of the public safety staff, instead of rolling out the bay of the fire station with the full complement of firefighters, the Town scrambles officers from police duty to meet the fire truck at the scene.

Often the patrol officers get to the scene first, but in the eyes of the evaluating agency, the Town doesn’t meet minimum staffing on its fire trucks.

Town staff said that ISO officials want to see a crew of six trained firefighters roll on every fire call.

Under the old staffing levels, the Town only sent two firefighters in the fire truck and one in the ambulance – a total of three. That number has been increased by two, but is still one short of the required six people.

Cross-trained personnel who arrive on the scene only count as a half a firefighter by ISO standards.

Last spring the staff recommended that the Town go to seven-person shifts plus additional “floaters” to cover for training, vacations and sick leave. It was suggested that additional staffing would also enable the town to revive its bicycle patrol and community policing efforts that went by the wayside as efforts were made to cut back expenses during the recession.

The town was able to shed several high-paid officers via an early retirement incentive plan, and to fill those slots on a day-to-day basis with per diem employees.

Stabe cautioned the Town Council about relying too heavily on the per diem employees, however, as many are employed by other agencies like Indian River County Fire-Rescue.

In the event of mandatory overtime or disaster coverage, those per diem firefighters would be duty-bound to their full-time jobs – perhaps leaving the Shores short-staffed when officers were needed the most.

Councilman Dick Haverland proposed the Town contract fire services from Indian River County, but after negotiations with County Administrator Joe Baird, it was determined that avenue would be too costly and would not aid the Shores in meeting ISO requirements.

The seven-person shifts plus floaters plan was scaled back to six-person shifts after Haverland raised fiscal concerns.

Haverland, a retired insurance executive, had conducted independent research and said at the time that the Town’s fire protection rating was not in danger of being downgraded. Haverland’s findings contradicted the recommendations of the Town’s hired risk-management consultant.

Haverland had suggested that the Town let ISO come in and determine the fire protection rating, and then, if necessary, take corrective actions to beef up staffing and ask for the ISO to take another look.

The Town Council ultimately agreed to a compromise plan and the 2014-15 budget was adjusted accordingly.

Former councilman and longtime mayor Tom Cadden at the time sparred with Haverland over the issue, Cadden asserting that all needed resources should be given to the Public Safety Department because, in Cadden’s opinion, enhanced public safety services over and above what the county could offer was the sole reason the Town of Indian River Shores was incorporated.

Cadden has since retired and been replaced by Councilman Michael Ochsner, who has stated that public safety is among his top priorities as well.

Ochsner is also intimately versed in the town’s budget, as he has served on the Finance Committee and for many years has been considered the Town’s go-to guy on fiscal matters.

ISO officials had agreed to postpone the Shores’ re-evaluation until early 2015 to give the town a chance to get the additional firefighters in place.

Now, Stabe said newly hired Chief Rich Rosell, who started March 20, will take a fresh look at the staffing options with the Town Council and with an expert from ISO.

“We have hired enough employees to maintain a minimum of six employees per shift,” said Stabe. “We agreed to implement this level and assess the operations. Chief Rosell has also analyzed the staffing and feels that we do need the additional three employees in order to be at the minimum staffing level required to function appropriately, which is seven employees per shift.

The Town is in the process of drafting its 2015-16 budget for consideration by the Town Council this summer, so the issue of staffing is timely.

“We’re doing this strictly out of our responsibility for the safety and welfare of our residents,” Stabe said. “I want to make sure we are meeting the needs and the expectations.”

Stabe said he doesn’t expect the council to take action on Thursday, but to begin formulating some recommendations to be brought forward for a vote at the next council meeting at 9 a.m. on April 23.

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