North of Miami and south of Palm Beach, in the greater Fort Lauderdale area, lies Broward County, Fla., a 1,205-square-mile area home to 1.8 million residents–the 15th most populous county in the United States. But from a fire/EMS perspective, what really sets Broward County apart is that the county’s fire/rescue services are operated under the umbrella of the Sheriff’s Office.
In October 2003, the Board of County Commissioners transferred the Broward Fire Rescue Division, by contract, from their administrative oversight to that of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO), which is a constitutionally elected office in Florida. The transfer was largely the result of lessons learned from the tragic events of 9/11. The demonstrated need for unified command, radio interoperability between first responders and coordinated training, and response of public safety led the call for unification of all public safety services under a single umbrella of command and control.
The IAFF Locals, which then represented the County Fire & Rescue, Seaport and ARFF Operations, merged under the collective IAFF consolidated Local 4321: Broward Professional Firefighters and Paramedics; more importantly, the IAFF supported the transfer, which created the largest fully accredited sheriff’s office in the nation with 6,300 employees.
Although incorporating fire/rescue into the sheriff’s office is by no means plausible for every community, I believe Broward County Fire Rescue (BCFR) stands as an example of how merging police and fire/rescue services may have mutual benefits for the departments and the community.
A Welcome Change
Contrary to what you might expect, the initial transfer of more than 500 fire/rescue members to the BSO was met with overall excitement. In large part, this was due to the success that the BSO had already achieved by engaging 14 of the county’s 31 municipalities to contract their law enforcement services to the BSO.
Giving up local control over critical municipal services such as police and fire is a difficult decision for many municipal elected officials and their constituents. However, the BSO and its leadership had been very successful in making the public policy case for regionalization of these services and, as such, many communities merged their police departments via a contract for service with the Sheriff’s Office.
The transfer of fire/rescue was seen as a logical extension of the law enforcement mergers already made. Firefighters viewed it as an opportunity for security and, in many cases, growth.
The BSO is headed by an elected sheriff whose direct reports include the Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Detention, the Department of Fire/Rescue and the Department of Administration. Each of these departments is led by an executive director responsible for the overall management of the department.
This unique arrangement allows the fire department to maintain fire service traditions and operations while also crossing boundaries with other departments or sharing resources contained within the vast structure of the BSO’s $700-million budget, of which approximately $90 million, or 13 percent, is allocated to fire/rescue.
Unifying public safety resources and assets under a single umbrella has brought Broward County many benefits, including:
– Sharing resources. The BSO expanded a Harley-Davidson motorcycle road patrol to include fire/rescue command. The subsequent fire/rescue motorcycle unit allows fire department personnel to staff community events, festivals and other mass gatherings with medics on motorcycles for a more efficient response.
– Training and personnel development. Fire/rescue members have been integrated into the department of law enforcement’s SWAT operations as tactical medics, providing close medical support during all tactical operations. The BSO also maintains joint honor guards of both law enforcement and fire/rescue personnel. Fire/rescue command personnel and law enforcement command personnel spend time “riding” to learn and gain and appreciation of both disciplines. Although the intent is not, and has never been, to cross-train personnel, such learning experiences have provided for a better understanding and more in-depth appreciation for the functions of each discipline. This has led to a more cohesive approach to joint scene operations such as domestic incidents, motor vehicle accidents and arson investigations. In addition, BSO expansion of supervisory leadership development through university partnerships has further benefited fire/rescue professional development.
– Ease of communications. We now have proven radio interoperability procedures. During the hurricanes that periodically threaten South Florida, we establish a unified command system that pairs each position of the incident command system (ICS) with a representative from each of the respective disciplines. This transcends hurricanes to man-made events and other large-scale incidents. So an operations chief from fire simply needs to look across the table to talk directly with their counterpart in law enforcement or corrections. Following the NIMS/ICS structure allows a synergy of resources for all that the BSO brings to bear.
This system was first tried and tested during 2005 as Hurricane Wilma hit Broward County as a strong Category 1 or weak Category 2 storm. Law enforcement and fire/rescue worked together to conduct damage assessment grid searches for reporting severity of storm damage. Previously, such rapid impact assessments were done by both law and fire, without any knowledge of who was doing what, or they were conducted by only one agency, which tied up resources for a considerable time.
In addition, fire/rescue paramedics are available to support jail personnel when private employees may be unable to respond to reach their posts. Also, field force units coordinated the deployment of fire/rescue and law-enforcement personnel and apparatus/resources. Deputies and firefighter/paramedics staffed the same shelters, improving the coordination of mass care and communications among those personnel.
In many of the communities it serves, the BSO provides both contracted law enforcement and fire/rescue services. This synergy of agency provides a seamless and well-rounded approach to our customers, the administrators, managers, city elected officials and ultimately the taxpayer. The BSO is well represented at all community events, including home-owner association meetings and civic associations.
Further, it brings a unique approach to most issues or opportunities, employing the resources and perspectives of both law enforcement and the fire services. Typically, each district or municipality names a district police chief and a fire chief (who holds the fire department rank of assistant chief). Both chiefs coordinate and cooperate to tackle community concerns and work within their respective chains of command to ensure that the full synergies are achieved to the benefit of the consumer. Examples: BSO prisoner work crews have been used to clean up community areas, and fire-vs.-police softball competitions have been used to raise money to benefit needy community members.
Another benefit of this umbrella public safety organization: Areas such as human resources, risk management, fleet, purchasing and general counsel are not challenged by the diversity of a generalized county or municipal government but rather have a singular focus on public safety issues and services.
What About Culture?
Perhaps the biggest challenge of integrating fire/rescue into the BSO was the integration of the fire service culture, traditions and history into a predominantly law enforcement culture. The key to achieving successful integration has been senior leadership’s willingness to embrace different cultures, traditions and history, as well as the tenacity of the fire service leadership in ensuring that fire service traditions and culture aren’t lost in this unique organizational arrangement.
Cultural unity, while preserving individuality, requires a continual commitment. We’ve developed a fire department bagpipe corps and we continue with traditional ceremonies marking firefighter funerals, promotions, station openings, retirements and other historic events. Although many in the fire service were initially skeptical of losing their identity in a predominantly law enforcement agency, the fire chief and his executive staff are given autonomy to establish and continue building upon centuries of fire service traditions.
Integrating fire/rescue into the BSO could conjure up images of public safety officers crossed with dual missions and a loss of independence for the fire department. In contrast, the Department of Fire Rescue has been able to maintain its identity and resources as a stand-alone business unit while also taking advantage of BSO force and resource multiplication when necessary and appropriate. The result: a system that is both efficient and effective in its mission to serve Broward County residents with the best emergency services possible.
A Little Bit of History
The progression of Broward County Fire & EMS services
The fire/rescue protection of Broward County evolved out of a system of independent volunteer fire districts as well as a pilot EMS paramedic program in the early 1970s that eventually became a county-funded third-service EMS system, Broward EMS. Broward County government absorbed the independent volunteer fire districts into a consolidated county fire department.
During the early 1990s, both Broward Fire and Broward EMS merged into a consolidated department, Broward County Fire Rescue (BCFR), and began the task of integrating third-service paramedics into the fire department, most all of whom became firefighter/paramedics; most of the firefighters reciprocated with paramedic training.
Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue (BSFR) serves a number of municipalities via contract and provides service to the Port Everglades seaport and the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The department provides a number of regional countywide services to all municipalities; it staffs a seven-member daily hazmat and rapid intervention team (RIT) and a seven-member daily technical rescue/RIT. In addition, the department operates an air rescue helicopter staffed with firefighter/paramedics.
The 600-member department operates out of 13 stations, staffing daily five battalions with 13 ALS engine companies, 15 ALS rescues, 4 ALS ladder companies, an air rescue helicopter, specialty tractor trailers (TRT and hazmat), ARFF crash trucks, a fireboat and an airboat. BSFR also operates special apparatus such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles and bicycle medics for special details.