Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade would share fire boats, crews with cities under new plan

Miami-Dade County and three coastal cities would share fire boats and crews under a new plan by Mayor Carlos Gimenez to end a stalemate with unions over how to revive the county’s modest fleet.

Under the draft plan, Miami-Dade would tap rescue staffs from Miami and Coral Gables to deploy county boats in the northern and southern reaches of Biscayne Bay, while Miami Beach would dedicate staff to help operate Miami’s own fire boat stationed in the downtown area.

“It’s efficient,” Gimenez, a former Miami fire chief, said of the draft plan, which still requires approval by unions and cities. “It will provide coverage for all quadrants of the county.”

The novel arrangements would allow Gimenez to revive the county’s pair of fire boats two years after budget cuts and a union dispute pushed the vessels into early retirement and onto a list of political headaches for the mayor.

Miami-Dade’s docked fire boats provided easy ammunition for Gimenez critics, and helped fuel a low-budget recall effort against him following a horrific boating accident this summer. Gimenez blamed the fire-boat shutdown on union demands, since he had proposed to use land-based fire crews to staff the boats during marine calls. Union leaders rejected that strategy, saying it increased response times both on land and on the water.

Al Cruz, head of the county’s fire union, offered guarded comments Wednesday about the new proposal.

“I think it’s positive putting resources in the water. It’s just the details that need to be worked out,” he said. Cruz was also critical of Miami-Dade having to turn to other governments for staff rather than just spending the money itself. “We have plenty of personnel in Miami-Dade County to staff these boats. The funding, if they really want to, can be found.”

City officials mostly did not respond to interview requests Wednesday, and county officials provided only sparse details for a plan that’s slated to be discussed at a meeting of fire chiefs early next week. But Gimenez and the county’s fire chief, Dave Downey, outlined the plan to once again provide full-time staffing for the county’s 50-foot fire boat using an unusual mash-up of government personnel.

Coral Gables would send crews to help Miami-Dade operate a 20-foot rescue boat in the southern bay. Miami Beach and Miami would share staff for Miami’s own fire boat, which is stationed downtown. Miami-Dade would use Miami crews to run the 50-foot county boat to be stationed in the northern part of Biscayne . Miami-Dade would use its smaller 35-foot fire boat as back-up to Miami’s for the bay waters off downtown as well, Gimenez said.

Miami and Coral Gables officials did not respond to interview requests. A Miami Beach spokesman sent a one-sentence statement that read: “There have been very preliminary discussions on who would staff the regional asset.”

Sally Heyman, a county commissioner representing coastal cities and a top advocate for fire-boat funding, said she welcomed Gimenez’s proposal. “Applause, applause,” she said. “I’m very excited.”

As part of the tax-cut package Gimenez championed after taking office in 2011, Miami-Dade reduced its fire tax by 5 percent. As part of the cost-saving plan that followed, Gimenez first proposed retiring the two fire boats the county had purchased in 2007, which at the time were staffed 24 hours by full-time crews.

Facing an outcry, Gimenez later proposed disbanding the fire-boat crews but using a rescue crew to staff both the boats and the land-based fire station at PortMiami. Union leaders objected to the part-time staffing model, saying it saved money at the expense of response times, since the boat would need to wait until another county fire truck arrived at PortMiami to cover potential calls there.

The union’s contract required agreement over the staffing change, and by 2012 the two fire boats were put out of service. They remained a knock against Gimenez for critics, but the fire boats vaulted back into the spotlight this summer on the heels of a July 4 boating calamity that left four people dead.

Miami-Dade did not dispatch rescue boats to the scene, and one of the people killed was the son of a former county firefighter, Jack Garcia, who also happened to be a top critic of Gimenez’s fire-boat cuts.

Five weeks later, Garcia held a County Hall news conference to announce a fund-raising effort for a mayoral recall. (The campaign seems to be moving slowly. While recall organizers cited a $150,000 fund-raising target by October, financial disclosure show the recall effort’s political committee has only raised about $3,000.)

Garcia dismissed the mayor’s latest fire-boat plan.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” Garcia said Wednesday. “Why not just put them into service the way we had them, manned by the county fire department?”