By Noelle H. Lowery
The Marco Island City Council voted 6-0 to allow Marco Island Fire-Rescue Department Chief Michael Murphy to hire three new firefighter-EMTs — one person per shift — at its Feb. 3 meeting. Vice Chairman Larry Sacher was absent.
This was the second time in six months that City Council voted on the question of new personnel for the MIFRD. During the city’s budget negotiations, the Budget Sub-committee approved the hiring of three additional fire fighter-EMTs. In September, though, City Council voted 4-3 to scrub the three new personnel from the budget. The original funding, however, remained in the budget.
During the recent meeting, Murphy told councilors the additional personnel boiled down to two words — response time. He said: “It is an expectation that when someone on this island calls 911 that they have us answer them…They shouldn’t have to wait nine minutes or more for a response.”
To be sure, growth on Marco Island and in the surrounding areas has increased the number of calls for MIFRD, as well as Marco’s reliance on mutual aid from other fire departments throughout Collier County. In 2013, MIFRD responded to 3,202 fire rescue and medical incidents — a 10.5 percent increase over 2012, a 16.5 percent increase over 2011 and a nearly 60 percent increase since Marco Island became a city 15 years ago.
Moreover, these incidents did not happen one at a time. Last year, there were 650 times MIFRD had two or more overlapping calls. In 2012, there were 543 overlapping incidents on Marco Island requiring off-island assistance, and in some of these cases, island residents waited as long as 29 minutes for help.
Chief Murphy described for councilors one day last December when five calls came into MIFRD in 51 minutes. When the call came in for a fire alarm at a multi-story condominium, he and the on-duty battalion chief were the only ones available from MIFRD to respond. Engine 90 from Isle of Capri responded nine minutes later, followed by two secondary units from East Naples Fire-Rescue District more than 20 minutes later.
“I truly believe this is a response time issue,” Murphy explained to City Council. “(The new personnel) will greatly enhance our response time…Someone will be there to protect (residents), to help them…This truly is a need of the fire-rescue service…We are facing a critical issue.”
According to Murphy, the three additional personnel will help with response time by allowing MIFRD to staff its quick-response vehicle to answer medical calls on the island. The QRV is set for delivery in March. Additionally, with the QRV in operation, maintenance and repair costs of the department’s tower truck will decrease because it will have to make less runs. Currently, if a medical call comes in on or off island, the tower truck will respond. Adding the QRV to the mix, allows the tower truck to remain at the station while the QRV makes the medical call.
Still, Murphy’s victory did not come without questions, and the main question was about funding the positions. Despite maintaining the $168,161 budgeted for the positions in 2014, recent recalculations of the city’s pension contributions showed the actual cost of the positions would now be close to $225,000. There were also questions about whether the new personnel and the QRV will require the hiring of additional supervision. Councilors also wondered how the additional personnel would impact the proposed renovation of Station 51.
This increase gave some councilors pause. “We’ve increased our ambulance coverage with the county during season,” said Council Chairman Ken Honecker. “At $225,000 annually, I don’t know…I think this is something we should be doing in the budget cycle.”
“We owe this to the citizens,” noted Councilor Larry Honig. “We really need this shift…Let’s hope we can pay for it in the coming years.”
Councilor Joe Batte tried to assuage these concerns by reminding his fellow councilors of their primary responsibility as City Council — the safety and security of the community. “It is not balanced budgets,” Batte told councilors. “(We) pay the fire chief a lot of money, and he has a lot of expertise. I hear him saying we need to step up, gang. We need to do this, and pick up the slack here. We need to make sure that when they call our people are served.”
Still, Batte admitted: “It is a tough nut, but we can’t save money when it comes to the safety and protection of our people…I cannot look the other way when my chief tells me that we can’t serve our people…I hear what you are saying. We need to cut and save in other areas, but when it comes to the safety of our people, we can’t cut there.”
Community members showed their support as well. “The chief has been pretty frugal,” said local businessman Bill McMullen. “We are having the busiest season we have ever had…There are more people in the way, more people needing assistance and causing the problems. I do believe the time is now… I recommend that you step up and approve that.”
Monte Lazarus, who thanks the MIFRD every chance he has for saving his life in recent years, spoke on behalf of the Marco Island Fire Rescue Foundation. “Please listen to Joe Batte,” he implored. “Your obligation is to provide for the safety and welfare of the people in this community. I don’t know what a human life is worth, but I think it is well within our capabilities in this community to protect and defend our citizens. Please take care of the citizens of this community.”
In the end, even the two councilors — Amadeo Petricca and Bob Brown — who have been most hesitant on this issue were showing signs of change. “I don’t think money is the issue. We can find it in other areas of the budget,” said Petricca; but he added, “I have been against hiring three individuals from the start, and I haven’t necessarily changed my mind about it.”
“We have to be budget conscious,” agreed Brown. “Batte said it the best. We are under an obligation to take care of everyone who lives on Marco Island and everyone who comes to visit. I want to be the guy who gets things moving.”
While this was his first official City Council Meeting, new City Manager Roger Hernstadt was on point, and he assured councilors that the funds will be found in the current budget. His sentiments were echoed by the city’s Finance Manager Guillermo Polanco.
With a sigh of relief, Murphy told City Council and the audience: “We are not trying to make more than we really need. One person makes a dramatic difference in our organization.”