When there’s a medical emergency in the area, fire engines and rescue trucks are a more welcome sight than police officers. Although officers have saved lives at times, it’s the paramedics who are trained to provide emergency medical attention, evaluate sick or injured people and transport them to a hospital. Unequivocally, they are life savers.
While police officers are often disparaged, firefighters and paramedics are valued, almost to the point of worship. Almost every resident in the area knows that when Engine #35 or Rescue #35 is on the road with lights flashing, someone is in need of immediate attention.
The Miami Springs/Virginia Gardens area has had its own Miami-Dade County Fire Station since the county took over the Miami Springs Fire Department many decades ago. No matter its location, the station’s rules, regulations, staffing and operations are dictated by Miami-Dade County.
From residents’ observations, all was fine until recently when the county cited budget constraints and started taking units out of service for hours throughout the county. That didn’t mean there was no service, it meant that units had to be brought in from other stations when needed and that increased the response time. In the past, it used to take an average of 2-3 minutes in the primary area but that time is extended when there’s a “brown-out.”
Because Rescue #35 was out of service for 24 hours and engine #35 was out of service for 12 hours, a recent call in Virginia Gardens took more than 40 minutes and it was handled by the Hialeah Fire Department, which isn’t even part of the Miami-Dade County Fire Department but is a mutual aid partner.
Miami-Dade has more than 2,600 fire personnel with 2,100 sworn firefighters. Statistics revealed that no additional firefighters have been added in more than five years. A firefighter class is presently in training, including many professionals from other municipalities. But demotions and layoffs are expected in upcoming weeks. The bottom line is budget overages.
Recently, the Fire Department was given a $15 million overtime budget but demands have caused the budget to be exceeded because equipment breaks and needs to be replaced, new structures demand greater coverage areas and calls for service have increased.
“The department has been running lean for five years,” said Jacquie Neetz, a rescue captain and Miami Springs resident. “But about 250 people retired and have not been replaced, plus our call volume is up.”
Overall, Miami-Dade County Fire handles approximately 300,000 calls a year. Miami Springs personnel handle an average of 10-15 calls per 24-hour shift with seven firefighters/paramedics per shift. That includes answering backup calls, whenever necessary, in Liberty City, Doral and the airport where response time is longer.
“When there’s a major catastrophe, we can be called anywhere,” said Neetz. “EMS (emergency medical service) makes up most of our calls. People don’t understand our staffing but every person on a unit has a specific duty. It’s the way we’re trained to handle emergencies.”
According to Neetz, firefighting and rescue work is a matter of tactics that have to be followed to put out fires and save lives. Personnel have been trained to handle fires at historic buildings and some rundown buildings that aren’t safe.
On a sick or injured person call, an engine might get there first if rescue is unavailable and a firefighter/paramedic must assess the situation as to necessary treatment before rescue arrives.
“The people on the scene are necessary, but some county commissioners have indicated that they think we’re overstaffed,” said Neetz. “But if we can get to a kitchen fire soon enough with enough personnel, we can contain it and save a home. If there’s a longer response time, we could lose the home. Not to mention injury or loss of life of a civilian or one of us.”
The Springs station also has special rescue team with a K-9 and handler and some of the crew, including Neetz, went on special assignment to Haiti when it was devastated by an earthquake. Considered an integral part of the community, Station #35 firefighters have been known to rescue ducks from drains and kittens from car engines.
Neetz is a third-generation firefighter and her profession is in her blood, no matter where her job takes her. One of Neetz’s passions is rescuing family pets. Her crew has standing orders to resuscitate cats and dogs.
“When the county says service is not reduced, I couldn’t disagree stronger,” Neetz said. “When there’s not enough personnel and service time is longer, we cannot do our jobs as well. That impacts the community, which is also my community.”
Neetz said the current situation could continue until the next Miami-Dade County budget goes into effect on Oct. 1.