Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Mike Arena told the Royal Palm Beach Village Council this month that his department is proud of its prompt response to the community’s needs over the past year.
Arena presented the department’s annual report at the Feb. 7 council meeting. “One of the biggest events of the year was Tropical Storm Isaac and all the related flooding that we had with that,” he said. “I know most of you were around and saw the operation. The headquarters was right here at the fire station, and we had resources and agencies from all around the state. We have the action reports on it, and we were pleased with the outcome.”
PBCFR divided the area into 146 1-mile grids where they went house-to-house checking on the well-being of residents. “Most were not in the Village of Royal Palm Beach but in the surrounding area,” Arena said.
Vice Mayor Fred Pinto asked Arena to explain the lessons learned from Isaac. “There has been a lot of consternation and conversation still going on about that event,” Pinto said. “I remember when you put together this massive team to go out there and find if people were blocked in their homes and whether people needed food or water.”
Arena said the event was not a typical one for the department. “It was an unusual circumstance,” he said. “It seems like our most challenging incidents over the years have been the ones when we tended to let our guard down a bit. We thought this was just going to be a rain event with very little wind. All the predictions showed it barely hitting Palm Beach County. Unfortunately, the rain sat on us, which caused a lot of the problems that we had to deal with.”
The flooding from Isaac was isolated in the central western communities, Arena said. “The majority of the rest of the county was not affected at all,” he said. “In fact, many people did not realize that we had the operation going that we did. We had floods in Jupiter back in the 1990s, but it was nowhere the magnitude of what we had here. But that’s what we pride ourselves on — when people don’t know who to call, we somehow try to figure out and coordinate the resources.”
Arena pointed out that the operation was a cooperative effort with agencies including the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the Division of Emergency Management. “We were just coordinating everything out of the fire station here locally, but it was by no means simply a fire-rescue effort,” he said.
Councilman Jeff Hmara said he heard many stories about PBCFR providing critical connections during Isaac’s flooding. “That assurance of knowing you’re not alone in a disaster situation, which of course you all do routinely and do very well, and the flexibility that you all demonstrate to be able to meet the needs of this unusual situation I think are certainly commendable,” he said.
Over the past year, medical calls headed the list of 3,495 Royal Palm Beach calls from Oct. 1, 2011 through Sept. 30, 2012, at 74 percent. The next largest category was auto or boating accidents, at 10 percent. Eight percent were responses to alarms and 5 percent were assists or investigations, while only 3 percent were fire calls.
“The activity has remained pretty constant for the past five years,” Arena said. “Of those calls, we’ve managed an average of five minutes and 48 seconds to all the calls in the village, which has stayed constant for the last four years.”
Transports are the largest part of the PBCFR workload. “Out of 2,590 medical calls that we were dispatched to, 2,126 of those resulted in transporting a patient to a hospital,” Arena said. “Out of those calls, 322 were car accidents, where there may or may not have been injuries that we took to local hospitals or trauma centers. Both of those numbers have stayed relatively consistent over the last three or four years.”
Structure fires, although the smallest percentage of calls, are generally the most serious, especially when there are people inside.
“We presently have the same response criteria we’ve had over the last couple of years, where we’re responding three of our fire engines, two of our rescue transport vehicles, the latter out of Station 29 over by Belvedere, an EMS captain and a shift commander to command all the resources on that scene,” Arena said. “If more resources are needed, they are called. The majority of our incidents are handled with those resources.”
Fire stations and personnel have remained unchanged since last year. “We still are maintaining the two stations within the village limits proper and the outlying stations in the region that respond when additional resources are needed,” Arena said. “All the stations are staffed 24 hours a day with the same amount of people around the clock.”
PBCFR has a capital program that provides for periodic replacement of vehicles. “As they reach their normal age, they are typically replaced,” he said. “We budget for them in the budget cycle, and we plan for them accordingly. Our rescue ambulance trucks typically have anywhere from a seven- to nine-year lifespan. Our engines, we try to stay within an 11- to 12-year lifespan, and typically our staff vehicles are around seven years.”
The department recently got a brush wild-land vehicle to help get to remote areas that are difficult for the larger brush trucks. “It’s a smaller unit we purchased for them in the county, and we’re trying it as a different type of tool in the toolbox,” Arena said. “We have to be able to get access to certain areas that the big trucks may have a harder time, and one of those is right here.”
The department also has a community assistance team, which responds to crises including deaths, significant car accidents and fires to help surviving families get on the track to recovery.
PBCFR also participated in numerous special events during the past year at schools, churches and other venues. The first responders are preparing to do some demonstrations for the opening of the new Royal Palm Beach Commons Park on March 2.
The department conducted 1,225 fire inspections over the past year, which is consistent with previous years. It also spent more than 18,000 annual contact hours in community education in Royal Palm Beach.