When a siren blares in one of Sarasota’s 28 fire stations, firefighters rush to their trucks to arrive at the emergency as quickly as possible. A central dispatch center receives the emergency call and checks the Automatic Vehicle Locator to see which vehicle is closest to the area. There are no boundary lines throughout the county.
“Seconds save lives,” says Sarasota County Fire Chief Mike Tobias.
Emergency response was not always so efficient in Sarasota. Prior to 1988, fire districts were scattered throughout the county, and the dispatch center was not centrally located. When an emergency call came through, a fire engine that may have been closer to the incident would not respond to the call because the emergency was not in its district.
The South Trail Area Fire Control District, Northeast Fire Control District and Fruitville Area Fire Control District were the first to consolidate in 1985 and became the Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District.
“The idea is to provide the quickest, best service in the community and have the boundaries to let you do it routinely,” says Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Brian Gorski.
Soon, other fire districts wanted to join. Old Myakka Fire Control District had volunteer firefighters but no department. Volunteers stored old fire engines in each other’s homes, and homeowners insurance was high because the area was considered to have no fire protection.
In 1985, Old Myakka joined Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District, and, together, they built a pole barn to house the fire trucks on one of the volunteer firefighter’s properties.
After a large fire broke out east of Venice in Sarasota County, South Venice Volunteer Fire Department and Nokomis Volunteer Fire Department responded even though it was not technically in either of their districts. Taxpayers saw the need for greater fire protection.
By October 1986, the Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District had signed a contract with the county and began providing fire-suppression services that became known as the South County Fire Department. The county operated two engines and one tanker out of a mobile home, Station 31, and a shared facility with the South County Ambulance District, Station 32.
Talks of consolidation between Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District, South County Ambulance District and Sarasota County government continued, and in 1987, they decided one organization would be formed. The county worked on the logistics of payroll, hiring and budget issues through 1988, when the Sarasota County Fire Department was created. The dispatch centers also consolidated at this time. John Albritton became the Sarasota County fire chief and was the main advocate of consolidating the departments.
At the time, Tobias served as operations supervisor of the South County Ambulance District, and Gorski served as division chief in charge of operations. They both looked up to Albritton, who always looked toward the future. In 1988, he foresaw that, one day, fire trucks would have computers in them.
The city of Sarasota Fire Department and the Sarasota County Fire Department began talks of consolidation in 1995. The fire chiefs worked with citizen groups to answer questions and concerns. Citizens were concerned about the level of service they would receive after consolidation and about losing their identity. After countless citizen panels, the city of Sarasota Fire Department became a part of the Sarasota County Fire Department.
“If you dial 911 and your kid is on the ground turning blue, you don’t care what color the truck is,” Tobias says. “You just want someone to show up.”
Consolidation not only helped with efficiency but with cost, as well. When the fire department buys apparatus in volume for more fire stations, it can negotiate a better price.
Today, the fire department has high-tech equipment that gets its employees to emergency situations more quickly, but, Tobias says, “The biggest advantage we have is our people.”
“I tell the new recruits this is the best job in the world and most trusted job in the world,” Tobias says.
Jan. 1, 1985 — The South Trail Area Fire Control District, Northeast Fire Control District and Fruitville Area Fire Control District consolidate and become the Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District. This was an independent special district the Florida Legislature approved.
October 1986 — The Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District provides fire suppression services to an area east of Venice in South Sarasota County. The new fire service is known as the South County Fire Department.
Oct. 1, 1988 — The Metropolitan Sarasota Fire Rescue District merges with South County Fire District and South County Ambulance District to form the Sarasota County Fire Department. They went from being independent districts to a dependent district under Sarasota County.
The city of Sarasota Fire Department becomes part of the Sarasota County Fire Department.
Sept. 14, 1999 — Sarasota County Fire Department and Sarasota Memorial Hospital sign a contract for inter-facility transport services. Sarasota County Fire Department begins to provide transport services to cardiac, neonatal and high-risk OB/GYN patients.
May 16 to June 4, 2000 — Sarasota County Fire Department fights one of worst wild land fires. More than 7,000 acres burned, 6,000 acres of which were on the Carlton Preserve. It took two weeks to contain the fire.
Sept. 12, 2001 — The Fire Department responds to more than 600 storm-related calls in 24 hours when Tropical Storm Gabrielle hit Sarasota County.
Station 15 is dedicated to Fire Chief John Albritton, a visionary for unified, countywide fire and emergency medical services.
Contact Yara Klimchak at [email protected]