Fears that fire station staffing will cost lives

Posted at 12:04 AM, May 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-06 00:04:51-04

The Contact 5 Investigators dig into a community's fear that fire station staffing is putting lives at risk.

There are five fire stations in Palm Beach Gardens. Four of them are staffed with five firefighters, the fourth only three. City leaders say three is adequate based on call volumes but our investigation found some very real consequences.

"I have heart disease, I have kidney disease, I have COPD," said Annie Rasso, a Palm Beach Gardens resident who lives in the Mira Bella neighborhood. It's just one of the communities serviced by Palm Beach Gardens fire station 64.

64 is the only station in the city not staffed with five firefighters. Rasso and her wife Catherine Gillot say that's a problem for them as they're no strangers to calling 911 because of Annie's chronic health issues.

"(Doctors) gave me 2 years to live 8 years ago" Rasso Said.

But on January 7, 2016, a fever almost killed her.

"By the time midnight came it was 105," Rasso said.

So her wife called for an ambulance. Emergency response time for Station 64 averages 7 minutes and 48 seconds, according to public records. It's the highest average response time for any fire station in Palm beach Gardens. However, on January 7 Annie's emergency response took much longer than that.

"Were you worried?" Asked Contact 5 investigator Jared Werksma.  "Yeah, of course I was beyond worried at that point," Catherine replied.

The Contact 5 Investigators obtained public records showing all three firefighters at Station 64 were out on another call at the time. Which is the case for 14% of all emergency calls in the stations service area. Which means station 64 is unavailable for more calls than any other fire station in Palm Beach Gardens.

"When you feel so helpless, you know, every minute feels like an hour," Gillot said.

Public records show the first unit actually responded from Station 61 and arrived at their home in 12 minutes and 19 seconds with three firefighters.

"Three people is not enough to deal with me and that's what shows up," said Rasso. She says steroids prescribed to help keep her stay alive have made her gain more than 150 pounds. 

Records show after the first unit arrived it was forced to call for back up. Station 64 was still unavailable so a second truck was dispatched from Station 65. By the time Annie finally got to the hospital more than an hour had passed since the first 911 call and she was on death's door.

"I heard them say there's no blood pressure and I was sure I was going to die," Rasso said.

Amazingly doctors were able to save her life but she says something needs to be done at Station 64.

"We need more people and if we don't get them it will be a great injustice," Rasso said.

Contact 5 requested interviews with the Palm Beach Garden's city manager and the Fire Chief for this story but our requests were denied.

The city has hired a firm to do a safety study on the entire fire department. The Fire Chief says it may not be complete until August.