Public Safety at 20

Trainee Zachary Meckstroth, left, leads the way as his crew attempts to put out a vehicle fire during live buring training at the Citrus County fire training center. Helping are Lt. Noah Hartman, center, and crew members Daniel Moore, second from right, and Nicholas Fatolitis.

Two decades ago, The Villages didn’t even have its own fire department.  In the past 12 months, The Villages Public Safety Department responded to more than 27,500 emergency calls, opened a new station, added 21 new firefighters and it’s not even close to being done growing. Over the next 20 years, the department is set to nearly double in size. The Villages Public Safety Department was founded on Oct. 1, 1999, with one station, one truck and nine employees. The department now boasts nine fire stations, a fleet of more than two dozen vehicles and 120

firefighters, not including an administrative staff of more than a dozen employees.

The nine stations are strategically placed around The Villages so no home in the community is more than 2 1/2 miles from the nearest one, and so the department is able to respond to calls in The Villages in an average of 4 minutes, 15 seconds.

The industry standard for response times nationwide is six to eight minutes, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

 Public Safety Fire Chief Edmund Cain and District Manager Richard Baier are already in discussions with the Developer, planning three moves — or in this case, three stations — ahead.

However, Cain said his department’s ability to grow and adapt to the community is not what impresses him the most.

“The most impressive thing about this department is the commitment of the employees to the public,” Cain said. “They care for these people, and not just on a fire or a medical scene.”

IN THE BEGINNING

Before there was the public safety department, there was the Orange Blossom Gardens Fire Department.

 It was a volunteer fire department founded in 1981 by Bob Pre-Genzer, a resident of Orange Blossom Gardens, the precursor to The Villages, according to reporting by the Daily Sun.

Pre-Genzer, a former volunteer firefighter from New York state, owned an antique fire truck that could be used to fight small brush fires. He wanted to build a shed to house the truck.

The Developer donated the land and, on Aug. 25, 1984, a small fire station opened on Griffin Avenue near U.S. Highway 27/441. The station Pre-Genzer championed is used to this day to house Lake EMS ambulances.

Eighteen years later, the District saw the need to enhance public safety in The Villages. The District wanted to provide not only fire service, but also wanted to have paramedics readily available to respond to medical emergencies.

A proposal was made to create a department that combined fire protection, emergency services and The Villages Watch, now known as Community Watch, although that agency stayed separate until 2009. The proposed budget for the new public safety department was $1.2 million, according to a special supplement that appeared in the Daily Sun before the department opened.

The first fire station for the new department was near the corner of County Road 466 and Morse Boulevard. It had belonged to the now-defunct Oxford Volunteer Fire Department. It housed one fire engine in addition to two patrol vehicles. Nine firefighters worked out of the station on three different shifts.

The Spanish-style building is still in use as Station 41. However, it has undergone extensive renovations and additions to modernize the building, as well as house more firefighters and vehicles, Cain said.

RAPID EXPANSION

As The Villages continued to expand, so did the public safety department.

Station 42 was built near Mulberry Grove Recreation center in 2002, the same year Cain joined the department. In fact, Cain was among the first firefighters to work out of Station 42.

After that, the department began adding new stations at a rate of about one every two to three years.

Preet Bassi, chief executive officer for The Center for Public Safety Excellence, which provides accreditation for The Villages Public Safety Department, said this rate of growth is among the highest that she’s ever seen.

The growth rate was so fast, the center advised the department to create three-year plans for growth, Cain said. Most departments typically use five-year plans.

“They’re to be commended for measuring that growth and planning for the future,” Bassi said.

She said growing departments often face a variety of challenges. One is getting budgetary approval and the political will needed to make things happen.

“With The Villages, the growth is easy to see,” she said. “It appears that the political decision to grow (the department) is easy. The real challenge is, ‘Can you build it fast enough? Are you able to get things up and running fast enough?’”

Cain said that with the District’s commitment to growing the fire department, getting anything he needs in a timely fashion is usually not a problem. The District has showed no resistance.

Baier took things a step further.

“The Public Safety Department growth is the most important aspect of the district government,” he said. “Everything hinges on public health and safety.”

People choose to live in the community because of the lifestyle, he said, and that includes the response time.

It’s one of the best in the region, Cain said.

MORE THAN JUST FIGHTING FIRES

Although fighting fires is a part of what the department does, residents of The Villages are far more likely to see public safety workers out and about for other reasons. It was no accident that part of the impetus for forming the department was to have paramedics ready to quickly respond to medical emergencies.

Cain said that about 50% of his firefighters are also paramedics, and about 80% of all calls they receive are medical emergencies of some kind. The Villages is not unique in this regard.

“That’s not just a trend here,” Cain said. “It’s nationwide. The majority of calls in any fire department are medical.”

Between 78% and 85% of all calls for service that fire departments receive are medical calls, said Kevin Quinn, first vice-chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council and a 44-year veteran of the fire service.

A big part of the reason for this is that fire departments are spending less time and devoting fewer resources to actually fighting fires.

 Public Safety Lt. Edward Raulerson, division chief of fire prevention, pointed to two major factors that contribute to this trend: Improved building codes and improved communications technology.

As building codes have changed, construction materials have become more fire-resistant, he said.

The director of the Lake Technical College Fire Academy, Ron Williams, also pointed out that more buildings, especially public buildings, have fire-suppression systems, or sprinklers, built into them. In fact, many codes require sprinklers in newly constructed public buildings.

These advances in construction have led to fewer fires overall, and those that do occur are often not as bad.

The other half of the equation is better technology leading to quicker response times for firefighters.

“Everybody’s got a cellphone now,” Quinn said. “That leads to faster notification.”

This helps firefighters arrive on scene faster, so they can get  the fire under control before it has a chance to spread.

With fire departments having to spend less time fighting fires, they can offer other services to the community.

“It didn’t make sense for a crew of firefighters to sit at a station waiting for a fire,” Williams said. “They’ve always been there for emergencies, and it just makes sense to have them respond to medical emergencies.”

The Villages Public Safety Department is constantly improving its medical response capabilities. One point of pride is its record on cardiac saves.

Cain attributes part of the department’s success to new technologies. The department can transmit a cardiac patient’s electrocardiogram to a hospital from the scene, reducing the time it takes to get that patient into a catheter lab to receive treatment for a heart blockage.

By sending a electrocardiogram to the hospital from the field, the department often is able to get a patient to a cath lab within 40 to 45 minutes of receiving the 911 call, Cain said.

 Public Safety offers services that takes its staff outside the traditional realm of fire and medical response as well. Residents who can’t safely use ladders can call on the department to change out smoke detector batteries. They can also turn to the department for training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and use of automated defibrillators.

Community Watch and the Community Emergency Response Team of The Villages, separate agencies that operate under the umbrella of the public safety department, are common sights throughout the community. They are crucial arms of the department, enhancing public safety by serving as extensions of more traditional law enforcement and fire and rescue teams.

Community Watch acts as eyes and ears within the community, observing and reporting. Its patrol drivers assist residents with everything from making sure garage doors are closed to house checks.

CERT responds to emergencies as large as natural disasters and as small as dehydration at a special event. Members use their training to help others until first responders like firefighters and paramedics can arrive.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

The last 12 months have been momentous for Public Safety as The Villages has expanded south of State Road 44.

The biggest and most visible sign of the department’s expanding profile has been the opening of Station 47 on Morse Boulevard, south of SR 44.

Cain said Station 47 is important for a number of reasons, the first being that it’s the first station where he was able to give input ahead of time on where it needed to be located to maintain the 4-minute, 15-second average response time, a point of pride for the District.

Baier said a lot of analysis, including meeting with the Developer and analyzing maps showing where the highest concentration of potential incidents might be, went into determining the best place to build the station.

The station also was designed to optimize response times.

When a call comes in, Cain said, firefighters will get out of bed, make a left and they’re in the engine bay. Their gear has been strategically placed so they can access it quickly on the way to the truck.

The station has a state-of-the-art ventilation system to remove exhaust from the engines, as wells as machines able to remove soot, smoke and the possible carcinogenic contaminants from firefighters’ gear.

Finally, this station has a District Customer Service Center satellite office that offers residents a place to go for other district government services, such as guest passes and ID Cards.

The opening of Station 47 also necessitated the hiring of more than 20 new firefighters. These firefighters have all joined the department since January, with three classes graduating so far this year.

Growth has also created new opportunities within the department. Five new lieutenants were promoted and Raulerson was promoted to the position of division chief of fire prevention.

Aside from the opening of Station 47, work has begun on Station 40 on Parr Drive to expand the engine bay to accommodate the department’s new tower truck, currently based at Station 51.

The truck has a very large ladder with a platform that can be used for rescues on buildings over three stories tall. The tower truck was purchased because of future developments in the area that will exceed three stories.

THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC SAFETY

With technology changing and The Villages expanding at a rapid pace, what the future holds for the public safety department can be difficult to predict. Looking at national trends could provide some insight, however.

Williams, of the fire academy, foresees more and more medical services being offered by fire departments.

“We’ve never done a job task analysis on what the job of a firefighter is,” he said. “The state has appropriated funds to do just that, and we’re going to tailor training and education to fit those standards. Fire stations may one day look like medical clinics.”

He thinks that eventually, all firefighters will have to be paramedics. Some departments are offering more medical services, such as paramedics who make house calls, fire departments giving immunizations and fire stations that offer blood pressure checks.

In keeping with national trends, The Villages Public Safety Department has set a goal to have 70% of  its staff be certified paramedics in the future, and the department currently has a paramedic assigned to each fire engine or rescue vehicle on each shift.

The department keeps evolving to meet the growing demands of a growing community, Cain said. To that end, he and Baier have been working with the Developer and planning where the next fire stations may be.

The County Road 470 corridor and the area near the Okahumpka service plaza are possible locations for new stations, Baier said, but no land as been set aside for this purpose yet.

Station 47 will act as a template for future stations, although Cain said that template will be fine-tuned to make it better.

Cain has confidence in his department and his firefighters, and in their ability to grow and adapt.

“I’d match these guys up against any other department,” he said. “They’re well-trained and willing to learn more. They want to do training.”

Whatever the future holds and whatever the community demands, he thinks his department will be up the task.

Phill Stuart is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332, or phillip.stuart@thevillagesmedia.com.