Firefighters turn to the Contact 5 Investigators to expose emergency response times that they say are putting tens of thousands of lives at risk in Palm Beach County.
The problem begins at the county fire/rescue station 22 in Loxahatchee. It was never meant to be a fire station. Its an old doctors office wedged in a strip mall next to a bar. Its one of two stations with a total of eight on duty firefighters assigned to cover more than a 100 square miles known as the acreage. Firefighters tell us its lead to dangerous response times that will only be reduced with a third fire station.
“This has been an on going issue for years” said one Palm Beach County firefighter who reached out to us. Concerned about his career he's asked to remain anonymous.
“Do you think this is actually putting people's lives at risk?” asked Contact 5 Investigator Jared Werksma. “Of course it is” he replied.
The Acreage is a rural but rapidly growing area that is now home to around 40,000 people. The firefighters we've spoken with say all of them could be left watching the clock when they can least afford it.
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue says it sets the bar for emergency response times at five minutes, 6 at the most. Contact 5 examined response times going back to 2013. There are two stations assigned to cover the acreage. Station 26 averages nearly 8 minutes per emergency response. Station 22 averages more than 9 with more than a third of all emergency responses taking ten minutes or longer.
“Is that a problem?” Werksma asked the firefighter. “That is a problem, that is a huge problem. That's uncalled for."
Melissa McKinlay is the Palm Beach County Commissioner for district 6 which is where the acreage is located. She says this is an issue she's been dealing with since before she was elected 15 months ago. She believes the two biggest factors adding to the excessive response times is the location of station 22 and also the infrastructure that surrounds it.
“A lot of these roads dead end, they're not paved, they're dirt roads” said McKinlay.
For many the larger concern is staffing. Station 22 has three firefighters on duty at any given time.
“You saw when they went out they were just three people and they went out on one truck. What happens if they need their ambulance?”
Said Lillian Hall, President of the Acreage Land Owners Association, as she watched station 22 pull out on an emergency call.
We posed Halls's question to PBC fire rescue Chief John Sluth and he told us “We can send resources from up to 25 other stations if needed.”
Something Hall says she doesn't believe is working effectively in the acreage.
“I have heard from the people in the trenches that, that just isn't so. It looks like (the acreage) is covered on paper but in reality day to day that's not the way it's working.”
Station 26 is the closest support option in the acreage. It's 5.5 miles from Station 22 with an on duty staff of just 5.
(Is the acreage) getting the coverage that (it) needs?" Werksma asked Commissioner McKinlay. Absolutely. Nobody is at risk right now of not having a fire engine or an ambulance respond in a timely manner to their home in the case of an emergency," McKinlay replied.
"We're looking at a response time that is, on average, about double what the recommendations are so how are you saying that?" Werksma Asked. "I think you have to look at where some of those calls were located" said McKinlay.
In 2014 alone county records show Station 22 had 351 emergency calls where the response time took more than 10 minutes. Firefighters we've spoken with say it's often a daily occurence and it's exactly why they believe the acreage needs another station. To cut the distance to any call.
."Our motto is when seconds count so when we talk minutes, every minute it becomes more and more critical." said the firefighter.
As of now commissioner McKinley and PBC Fire Rescue says even getting 22 rebuilt is years off.
"2018, 2019. We need things now. We need help from the commissioners now, 2016." said Hall.
We asked PBC Fire Chief John Sluth for comment on our investigation. His response is below.
"You sent in the public records request and we responded. We have nothing to add"
Chief Sluth did tell us a new station 22 has already been budgeted for but they don't know where it will be built so plans have stalled. Commissioner McKinlay says she has asked the fire chief to speed up the process. She says she'll also be pushing for staffing improvements in the acreage but right now there is not even a discussion about adding a third Station. We will continue to dig into this issue.