When a suspected lightning strike zapped the West Dade Public Library's fire-alarm system last March, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department made librarians an offer they couldn't refuse: Hire us or close your doors.
The library was placed on "fire watch, " an ostensible public safety program that has never saved a life that anyone can remember, but has put at least $4.3 million into county firefighters' pockets since 2000.
Some have compared it to an old-fashioned protection racket.
Off-duty firefighters patrolled the two-story suburban library for seven months, keeping their eyes and nostrils alert for possible fire hazards.
In the first month alone, the department billed the library - and therefore county taxpayers - more than $54,000 for the round-the-clock patrols. Librarians gasped at the bills.
Instead of the firefighters, whom they were paying as much as $102 an hour, the librarians asked if they could have their own security guards watch the building. After all, professional help wasn't far away; the library shares its parking lot with a fire station nicknamed the "Westchester Express."
The answer would have been yes in New York, Los Angeles and even Miami, where $10-an-hour private guards perform fire watch.
In Miami-Dade County, the answer was no. It had to be county firefighters, the librarians were told.
County Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo said that only his firefighters perform fire watches because that's the safest way to operate.
"When it comes to issues regarding the protection of Miami-Dade County residents, we do not cut corners or look for the cheapest solution at the expense of life safety, " Lorenzo wrote in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. After the newspaper's initial inquiries, Lorenzo asked the county auditor and inspector general to examine the fire-watch program.
Many business owners and government officials who have been compelled to pay for fire watch complained that the firefighters did little, or nothing, for the money.
"They spent the whole time in their vehicles just sleeping, " said Fernando Salazar, finance director for Tampa Cargo, a cargo airline based at Miami International Airport. MDFR firefighters spent most of last summer on fire watch at the company's warehouse.
"They used to stay in here and watch American Idol, " said Sergio Vassallo, who works at Radio Shack in the 163rd Street Mall. The mall accumulated a $90,000 fire-watch bill during renovations in 2004.
"They were always in there watching TV, reading newspapers, playing pool. I saw one guy out front feeding squirrels, " said Paul Levine, a former building manager at the Towers of Quayside, a Northeast Miami-Dade condo complex that ran up a $193,000 fire-watch bill in 2004 and 2005.
County Fire Marshal Manuel Mena acknowledged that he has fielded complaints about firefighters playing pool or watching television on the job.
But since a fire watcher's duty is simply to serve as a "human fire alarm, " that's not necessarily inappropriate, he said. "Whether they are watching TV or smoking a cigarette - as bad as they look, they're still doing their job."
Charges that firefighters slept on fire watch or abandoned their posts are hard to prove after the fact, Mena said. Punishment is rare. One firefighter was issued a written reprimand for an incident in October 2003 and another firefighter was suspended for a day in 1998, according to Chief Lorenzo's statement.