Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 16, 2017 1:56 p.m.
We rely on local government for critical services to keep us safe. But we often take it for granted that those services will respond quickly in times of need. We sometimes think of growth only as it impacts our roadways and green space. But we also need to be mindful that it will require ongoing investments of public funds to maintain those rapid responses and high levels of emergency services that we need and expect.
The Nassau County Fire Rescue Department (NCFRD) will be expected to meet increased demand for fire protection and emergency services as the population grows and the number of dwelling units increases. New department leadership is strategizing on the best ways to meet the challenges of growth and increased demand for services within the constraints of county budget limitations.
Fire Chief Brady Rigdon and Assistant Fire Chief Greg Roland head up a department consisting of 105 firefighter/paramedics who work in seven stations throughout the county, including the south end of Amelia Island. Last month alone these professionally trained men and women responded to 740 calls for assistance. From January through October this year, they handled more than 15,000 such calls.
Nassau County has generally been considered a small Florida county for statistical purposes. It is the state’s 38th largest county with an estimated 2016 population of 77,841 residents occupying 36,450 housing units over the county’s 649 square miles. But Nassau County is growing. With increased economic development and new residents, the Nassau County Economic Development Board estimates that population will increase to 84,492 by 2020 and 111,283 by 2040.
Rigdon and Roland worked together in the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department (JFRD) before assuming responsibility for Nassau County Fire Rescue (NCFRD). Rigdon, who spent 26 years with JFRD, came on board as Nassau County Chief this past June; Roland became Assistant Chief the end of September. He spent more than 29 years with JFRD and also served five years with the Fernandina Beach Fire Department in the early 1980’s. Both men rose through the ranks in JFRD, acquiring many academic degrees and professional certifications along the way.
When asked if they found many differences in transitioning from the big city of Jacksonville to Nassau County, Rigdon said, “Firefighters are firefighters wherever you go. They are a talented group of men and women.”
Both Rigdon and Roland spoke highly of Fernandina Beach Fire Chief Ty Silcox. They got to know him while they were in Jacksonville and Silcox was at the time heading the Orange Park Fire Department. That positive relationship has continued as all three now work to coordinate fire rescue efforts here in Nassau County and on Amelia Island. Roland, in commenting on the relationship between the city and county fire rescue services, said, “The relationship between the two organizations has never been as good as it is today.”
The NCFRD responds to emergencies on land or water. Recently they received a grant for a rescue boat. Members of the JFRD Marine Division will help train Nassau County personnel in water rescue. This past year has required NCFRD to respond to everything from a major forest fire to hurricane-related floods in the western part of the county. They also respond to hazardous materials and specialized rescue incidents. These types of calls are often labor intensive. Occasionally the situation exceeds the capabilities of NCFR and they will request assistance from JFRD who has regional responsibility to assist in such emergencies.
When asked to identify his primary goal for NCFRD, Rigdon responded in a word: staffing. He is working to staff up personnel to three per fire suppression vehicle (the National Standard is four). He is also working on adding another fire station for Heron Isles. That project is in design and will go out to bid by the end of the year or early 2018. He anticipates that it will be completed in 2018. Until that time, Heron Isles is being serviced out of the O’Neal Station.
While NCFRD does not deal with the same volume of rescue calls related to violent crime as JFRD, the community is not immune to such problems. Also looming large is the opioid problem. (See: https://fernandinaobserver.com/2017/11/01/has-the-opioid-epidemic-hit-home/) Roland, who recently conducted a joint training session on this problem with the Nassau County Sheriff’s Department, said that opioid-related health emergencies are trending high in the county and that Narcan is one of the more frequently administered drugs in the department’s arsenal. [Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.]
Roland added that another department goal is to improve the county’s ISO rating, which could result in lower insurance premiums for businesses and homeowners. According to the website www.FireServiceInfo.com, “ISO [Insurance Service Office] rates everything from the amount of fire apparatus to the age of it. You can get points for very specific types of training equipment.” Staffing, apparatus, equipment, and water locations are all considerations given toward the final ISO rating.
But like staffing, the steps necessary to improve the county’s insurance rating involve public expenditures to replace aging equipment, add vehicles, fire hydrants, etc. The NCFRD is working with the County Manager and Assistant County Manager to identify funding to help meet the demands of projected county growth.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.