By Austin Torres
A Special Committee Meeting voted on an agreement on October 21st to authorize negotiations for a final contract with The Broward Sheriff ’s Office (BSO) to provide medical and fire assistance to the city of Hallandale beach. The merger, which has been often discussed over the last few years, is being negotiated by City Manager Greg Chavarria. The partnership would provide Hallandale’s Fire Rescue with enhanced service levels at lower costs, value-added administration, cost-effective training programs, and long term financial pension stability. The merger would also provide Hallandale firefighters with enough personnel to not only perform their jobs more efficiently but also more safely.
A presentation by the BSO and staff detailing all of the potential benefits of the merger, as well as a tentative cost breakdown and comparison, was presented at the meeting. Broward County’s Fire Chief Joseph Fernandez, who is a veteran firefighter with 35 years of experience, opened up the discussion.
BSO, which boasts 81% customer satisfaction as opposed to the national average of 61%, is a fully accredited organization with an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) rating of 1, that follows industry standards which ensure optimum response time and is constantly being reevaluated to ensure a safer environment for citizens as well as firefighters.
One of the codes BSO is in compliance with is National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, which specifies a minimum of 15 firefighters in the event of a fire at a single-family home, 28 for an open airstrip shopping center or garden apartment fire, and 43 for High Rise buildings 17 stories or higher, as well as additional firefighters if needed.
With over 150 people on duty, Merging with BSO would provide Hallandale with the needed staffing and resources to ensure that these standards are met, promising a safer environment for citizens and firefighters alike.
“Critical tasks have to happen concurrently, if they’re not done in the first 8 minutes it gets to the point of flashover and there may be no lives to be saved”, said Fernandez.
BSO also offers the added benefit of comprehensive joint fire and emergency medical training with surrounding municipal departments in an effort to develop close working relationships with mutual/automatic aid providers.
Additionally, BSO adheres to strict codes to minimize cancer risk, such as NFPA 1851, which specifies that bunker gear is annually cleaned. BSO also has health divisions, an employee wellness program, and annual physicals, which can detect cancer early on.
As the state has now made municipal governments liable for 21 firefighter related cancers, it is not only imperative to ensure the firefighters’ safety but also to maintain minimal financial exposure.
“When you do these things you’re saving dollars as an employer,” said Fernandez. City Attorney Jennifer Merino presented a cost comparison between the 2020 Fiscal Year Budget and the BSO proposal which shows that the merger would cost $786,870 over what the city currently has budgeted.
However, estimates suggest that Hallandale can potentially save up to $84,276 through the partnership.
“We also have to take into account that we are self insured, and whenever one of our vehicles has an accident we pay the cost,” said Merino. Property damages over the last 5 years have ranged from $1,286 to $167,803. An average of those costs shows that the city could save up to $40,000 annually through its’ partnership with BSO.
“Our vehicles would be transferred over to BSO ownership which means we would fall under their insurance coverage,” said Merino. Hallandale also stands to save money on bargaining agreements they have open with The Police Union, The Fire Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The city has budgeted $771,000 for the collective costs of bargaining agreements. A conservative estimate shows that the city would spend approximately $300,000 to finalize a collectivized bargaining agreement.
“When I say ‘conservatively’ it is because that is significantly less than what is on the table with police, it’s a little bit more than half of what's on the table with police,” said Merino. Training programs offered by BSO that would upgrade the department and help them pursue accreditation as well as a higher ISO rating could also save the city an additional $531,146.
There are potential costs to be saved with safety programs that prevent and minimize the risk of cancer for firefighters, however, a good faith estimate for these savings could not be produced.
According to the cost comparison the greatest potential indirect savings may come from pension reform, a number for these savings is currently pending results from an Actuarial study. Hallandale is seeking to move to FRS, an alternative pension plan to their cities’ pension plan. Currently, the city spends 85 percent of salary on pension, while FRS would cost only 26 percent.
The savings, which would not be immediate, save the city a significant amount of money in the long term and provide financial stability. “Other cities such as Dania Beach, who went over to FRS as part of the merger with BSO have now in their seventh year seen significant savings,” said Merino.
The transition to BSO would afford employees the opportunity to choose between both pension plans, an option currently not available for employees hired after 2013. Several citizens took turns addressing the committee and other residents to express their support for the transition.
Among these citizens was President of the Fire Union Jim Bunce. “We knew from the beginning this was the right thing, we all support that merger, and we hope you look at this and do the same thing.”
City manager Greg Chavarria expressed what he considers to be some of the major takeaways from the partnership. “We get immediate training opportunities and accreditation through merging as well as long term pension stability that’s evident among other cities such as Dania Beach, they’re also taking 1.14 million in accruals,” said Chavarria.
“We look forward to improving public safety via the merger and having long term financial stability.”