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New $73M fire academy needed now, says County Commission

Sarasota commissioners douse plans to build a pared-down $53.8 million training facility and ask staff to explore additional funding sources.

The site plan of the new Sarasota County Regional Fire Training Academy, color-coded in phases under current funding.
The site plan of the new Sarasota County Regional Fire Training Academy, color-coded in phases under current funding.
Courtesy image
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Having outgrown the training academy site on city-owned property at 3600 Circus Boulevard, the county is preparing to break ground on a new Sarasota County Regional Fire Training Academy on county-owned land on Knights Trail Road near the county landfill.

The county is currently a tenant of sorts at the Suncoast Technical College Fire Academy, which occupies the site under a lease agreement with Sarasota County Schools. 

The 30-year-old facility is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the rapidly growing agency. Also, with STC’s lease with the Sarasota County Schools expiring in November 2033, its future there remains uncertain.

During its March 20 budget workshop, Director of Emergency Services Rich Collins told the Sarasota County Commission that the funding for a full build-out of a new training academy is just over $20 million short and, as a result, must be built in phases. 

Training inside the burn building at the STC Fire Academy in Sarasota, which simulates fire rolling across the ceiling.
Courtesy image

That didn’t sit well with commissioners, who were unanimous in directing staff to kick over any and all buckets of funding to build the entire facility now.

Collins said the STC academy is inadequate to train for live fires, high-angle rescues and fires in multi-story buildings. Driver training for various pieces of apparatus currently takes place in the parking lot at Robarts Arena. Some personnel must travel to south county to train while on duty, taking them far away from the neighborhoods they are training to protect.

Those standards are important, Rathbun added, because they directly affect the agency’s Insurance Services Office rating, which affects individual property insurance rates. The department currently has a rating of 2 on a scale of 1-10, 1 being the top rating.

The new training facility will address all of the current limitations of the training site and provide modern facilities that will be shared with STC’s curriculum, which will be a partner and likely host outside agencies.

With the current funded budget of $53.8 million, the new academy would include:

  • Administration building
  • Apparatus building
  • Class B drill tower
  • No-burn cold tower
  • Gas-fired props
  • Roof props
  • Propane fueling station
  • Physical training area
  • Limited furniture, fixtures and equipment
  • Dumpster enclosure
  • Site work and landscaping
  • Park trailhead relocation
A building in the STC Fire Academy emblazoned with the slogan, "Everyone Goes Home."
Photo by Andrew Warfield

Among the funding sources commissioners requested to be explored were tourism tax and economic development tax dollars, ostensibly because, as a regional training academy, it has the potential to draw agencies from across the state for overnight stays and serve as an economic driver.

“I would like to entertain a much broader discussion other than what the current funding is,” said Commissioner Neil Rainford. “I don't think we build something halfway.”



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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