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Sarasota Thursday, May 6, 2021 7 months ago

School district, county consider fire training partnership

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As the county prepares to build a regional fire training site, school leaders are considering switching from the district's current facility to a partnership at the new facility.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

As the county looks toward the future of its fire-rescue department, leaders are hoping to create a steady stream of employees. And to do so, they’re reaching out to community partners.

The county is building a regional firefighter training site off Knights Trail. A 32-acre complex would be built on property owned by the county.

Speaking to the County Commission, Fire Chief Michael Regnier said the department needs partners to make the site possible.

“We’re looking to partner with other agencies, so we can give it  a true regional aspect,” Regnier said.

The training site would allow students who want to become firefighters to attend school, receive credentials and get hired by regional departments.

One of the first entities the county approached is the school district, which currently offers training at its Fire Science Academy just off Fruitville and Beneva roads.

Classes at the school are taught by part-time staff from the regional fire agencies, which offer students a network when they enter the job field. The school has a 71% completion rate with a 99% placement rate for those who complete the program.

The district’s lease on the property, which began as a partnership with the city of Sarasota in 1993, will end in 2033.

Chief Operations Officer Jody Dumas said the district’s current facility contains a burn building, where trainees can build their skill set around a contained fire. However, the building and equipment on the campus have been replaced several times.

The remaining buildings on the campus are portable classrooms. There is no permanent structure on the facility.

“It’s at the point where really the entire facility and all the equipment in the building is in need of replacement,” Dumas said. “Just to continue to support the program at the level we need to, we’d have to start looking at rebuilding.”

The terms of the current lease state that if the district does not renew, all facilities on the lot become property of the city.

So, Dumas said, it becomes a question of whether to retain the district’s lease with the city and invest in the current property or invest in “state-of-the-art” buildings with the county.

Board members were open to a partnership but were concerned with the potential cost. Dumas said initial conversations with the county estimated the district’s cost at about $5 million. The school district’s annual lease payment now is $1.

However, because of the near-total rebuild necessary at the current site, the county could anticipate $5 million or more in expenses. To build a new burn building alone, Dumas estimated the cost at $3 million, with another $2 million to $3 million to replace the portable classrooms.

Additionally, Ron DiPillo, STC’s executive director of career and technical education, said because of the current facility’s proximity to downtown and Bobby Jones Golf Course, the city might elect not to renew the lease.

Board Chair Shirley Brown said she’s heard complaints about the site’s buildings for several years and would like to modernize.

“It’s past time,” she said. “So if we got a partner who wants to share those costs, that would be wonderful.”

DiPillo said the county and the schools already have a working relationship because the county allows the school access to fire equipment for training.

The school sees about 450 students a year from Sarasota, DeSoto, Charlotte and Manatee counties. It has about five portable classrooms and one office, which DiPillo said is a small area for the number of students the school draws.

“We want to grow the program, and all the local chiefs agree that STC is the best training provider because we’re doing the job they need to be successful,” DiPillo said. 

“So it makes sense for use to be in a regional location, centrally located, so we can attract students to the program.”

The board expressed interest in the partnership, and now Dumas will initiate more concrete discussions with the county to consider cost, how much of the facility the district would be responsible for and who will pay for electricity and maintenance.

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