A tight budget leads East Manatee Fire Rescue commissioners to slow down construction on the station.
With the potential hiring of an additional three firefighters putting a strain on its budget, commissioners for East Manatee Fire Rescue decided during a Sept. 7 budget workshop to delay construction of a new Myakka City fire station.
Discussion of the station's groundbreaking isn't likely to take place until next spring, making it unlikely the station construction would begin in Fiscal Year 2022-2023. The Fiscal Year begins Oct. 1.
The new station has been planned to be built adjacent to the existing Station 11, which will be torn down, on Wauchula Road.
East Manatee Chief Lee Whitehurst said one reason Myakka City is in need of a new station is that if a storm with Category 3-force winds (111 to 129 mph) or higher hits the area, Station 11 would need to be evacuated, with firefighters and staff needing to go to another station, or possibly moving to Myakka City Elementary, which has a higher rating for storms.
Whitehurst said he believes the new building will be rated for gusts up to 200 mph.
The existing station would remain in use until the new building is complete.
Another reason for a new station is simply more space. The new structure will be 10,500 square feet as compared to current structure's 6,500 square feet. Whitehurst said during a natural disaster, the station could see doubling – such as during Hurricane Irma – or even tripling of staff members on duty. The new facility would have the needed capacity.
Whitehurst said when Hurricane Charley struck the area in 2004 with greater than 100 mph winds, it became apparent the rescue needed to be better prepared for storms.
The cost of the new station is $4 million-plus, with the emphasis on plus during the current period of inflation and construction delays. If the commissioners affirm their decision to delay construction for any significant period of time, costs could shoot up significantly.
Whitehurst said impact fees can only cover a third of the station's construction costs with the rest of the money needing to come from the general operating budget.
Deputy Chief Paul Wren said the station's site plan currently is under review by the county, which is a critical step forward, while engineers and architects are currently working on the design.
The fire commissioners cast a preliminary vote to delay construction during a Sept. 12 trim hearing, affirming their earlier decision, with final approval of the budget to come Sept. 17.
Whitehurst said the board could return to the topic during mid-fiscal year, in a discussion which he hopes will follow the results of the rescue’s audit, which is due by June. The commissioners have the option to perform budget amendments throughout the fiscal year.
He said once complete, the station will become an important resource for the community.
“The fire station tends to, along with a school, be one of those community icons,” Whitehurst said. “For me personally, my intent is to have that building there, so that if all else is gone, that building is something the community can depend on, that our employees can depend on, and feel safe in.”
Seven bunk rooms will be constructed in the new facility as compared to two in the current building.
Battallion Chief Kyle Taylor noted the roof of the current building leaks, causing a dangerous situation in case heavy winds hit the area.
“Once it rips the skylight out, then that wind’s coming right in there,” Taylor said. “And it can lift the whole roof off the building.”
Whitehurst said there will be impact glass windows, as well as an automated generator in the new station.
“You’re trying to go out and respond to the public and get ready for hurricanes," Whitehurst said. "So to top that off (you don't want to) shutter your station, and worry if the power going out.” he said.
He said the communications tower on the lot will be updated to upgrade the alert system.
One major feature of the site will be a retention pond that will supply the firefighters with water when needed. Whitehurst said water can tend to be a scarce resource in the eastern parts of the county.
A well, complete with a refilling tank of at least 26,500 gallons, will be created . It's a much bigger capacity than the current facility.
The new construction will increase livability as it enlarges the kitchen space and provides a dedicated workout room so firefighters don't have to work out in the bays.
Firefighters will get a dedicated area for decontaminating their gear, an action they must perform after responding to a fire, as well as rooms to store their gear away from exhaust.
The plans also call for a new ventilation system that will recirculate air more rapidly than the previous system.
Upgrades include an upgraded driveway and parking lot, which will have increased thickness to hold newer, heavier trucks.
During the workshop, Whitehurst presented commissioners with two objectives, to either build the station or hire six firefighters. The commissioners moved forward with the hiring of firefighters, but cut the number to three.
Hiring more firefighters is a goal to build more four firefighter units instead of the mostly three-man units currently assembled. Whitehurst said East Manatee Fire Rescue currently has only two four-person units.
Commissioner Garry Lawson called the current time of economic uncertainty a “bad time to build a new station,” describing himself as “on the fence” about beginning the project, while also saying he would support the will of the board.
He said issues with obtaining materials were still ongoing, and offered the Parrish Fire District's troubles in ordering construction materials over the past six months.
“I don't think $4 million is going to come close to completing it, turning the key, ready to move in,” he said of building a new Myakka City station.
Fire Commissioner Bob Conley said he favored looking into hiring three new firefighters.
Nonetheless, he said the threat of hurricanes makes building a new Myakka City station an important issue, noting the current station's lack of rating to house firefighters, leading to a longer response time, during a big storm.
Fire Commissioner Richard Jacobs said he favored pursuing the three new firefighters first.
Commissioner Derek Foss asked if it was feasible to follow both plans, saying he did not want to put the station project off and leave its future uncertain.
“We need to do right by the Myakka residents,” he said.
He said East Manatee Fire Rescue was rounding the corner on adequate staffing.
“I think if we keep looking at this with blinders on, putting four people per unit, it's going to cost this district a lot more money,” Lawson said.
Whitehurst said the station would be best addressed post audit, and he could come back with a legend to support one option or the other in the middle of the fiscal year.
During the Sept. 12 hearing, the board voted 5-1 for a preliminary approval of a Fiscal Year 2022-2023 budget containing funds for three additional firefighters, with Commissioner James Carlino in dissent due to an absence of funding for advanced life support, or paramedics, on East Manatee Fire Rescue fire engines, an initiative he is currently pursuing.
At Station 11, firefighters said they were looking forward to the benefits of the replacement station.
Firefighter Kyle Powers said he would look forward to individual bunk rooms. He also said he works out every day, but the temperature is “cooking,” making it very hot in the bay area.
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