Ocoee resident Hope Freeman told Ocoee city commissioners Aug. 27 about how city firefighters saved her daughter’s life after her daughter was kicked in the face by a horse.
“I like the small-town atmosphere of Ocoee and how Ocoee looks out for Ocoee,” she said.
Other residents also spoke highly of the city’s firefighters and their service. They shared their thoughts as the commission considered whether the city should consolidate its fire department operations with the Orange County Fire Rescue Department. Commissioners plan to decide the issue at their Sept. 16 meeting.
Many Ocoee residents who spoke at the meeting opposed such a consolidation, which county Fire Chief Otto Drozd III said could save the city about $2.45 million. The potential savings would come from lower emergency medical services’ fees and decreased, overall expenses, he said.
City officials asked the county last October about studying the feasibility of such a merger.
However, former Ocoee firefighter Ben Buckner cautioned commissioners about relinquishing the department’s independence.
“Once you give it up, it’s hard to get back,” he said. “Our (fire trucks) will get run out of the city, they will move our stations, and our workers will leave.”
STAY OR GO?
Drozd said he grew up next to a fire station and knows the value of a hometown fire station.
“We would be fully accountable to the residents of Ocoee, the mayor, city commission and city manager, just as your hometown fire department is today,” he said. “We would keep every Ocoee fire department employee on the job, at the same rate of pay.”
Those workers would receive new promotion and training opportunities, would be able to decide whether they want to stay in the area or transfer, and would be free to stick with the city’s retirement plan or switch to the county’s, Drozd said.
“They would still be your hometown firefighters,” he said.
Mergers are nothing new for county fire-rescue: Drozd said it was formed when 14 fire-services organizations combined into one.
Ocoee has close to 50 fire department employees — many of whom are currently in negotiations with the city on a new contract — while the county has more than 1,100. The county also has more fire stations and more equipment, which Drozd said would benefit Ocoee in a merger. Average response times of both Ocoee and county fire-rescue personnel to emergency calls is about four minutes.
“The benefit of the merger would be that we would be stronger together than apart,” he said.
But, Buckner said staff and equipment from other fire departments — including those in the county and Winter Garden — already help Ocoee when needed.
Commissioner Rusty Johnson asked Drozd how could he guarantee that Ocoee fire department employees would stay working in Ocooe and that no city fire stations would be closed in a possible consolidation.
“You would have full control, and I would put the guarantees in writing,” Drozd said.
Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen asked Drozd if a merger would mean the closure of the county’s fire stations that border the city.
“No,” Drozd replied. “We need all of the stations that are surrounding Ocoee. We’re really looking at growth on the west side, so it’s likely there will be more units added in the future.”
In response to questions from Commissioner Joel Keller, Drozd said details about the city’s current fire station and equipment leases would be worked out in any merger agreement.
But, many Ocoee residents at the meeting still were not convinced of the value of consolidating.
“For us to see the fire department go to the county would be a huge disservice to the citizens,” Ocoee resident Andy Anderson told the commission. “You would lose control. We look to you to provide the services we expect. We hope you guys make the right decision and keep the fire department.”
Another resident asked commissioners if they wanted the $2 million in potential savings from a merger so they could install sewer lines in Ocoee’s downtown, a project city officials have said is necessary to attract new businesses.
That assumption is just a rumor, Mayor Scott Vandergrift said. Johnson added that installing sewer lines downtown “would be way more than $2 million. But, I know that to do projects in this town, it’s going to cost money.”
Near the end of the meeting, Johnson said: “I like the fire department the way it is now. It’s not that I don’t like what’s in the county, but I know what’s in my heart.”
Wilsen said commissioners have much to consider before they can decide on the possible merger.
“I have not made a decision,” she said. “It’s nice to know what our residents are concerned with. Savings is not a concern (that they’ve expressed). They’re more concerned with keeping the fire department.”
Contact Tony Judnich at [email protected].
BY THE NUMBERS
$2.45M: Potential savings by merging Ocoee’s fire department with Orange County.
Four: The average response time, in minutes, of both departments to emergencies.
47: The number of employees currently in Ocoee’s department.
1,100: The number of employees in the Orange County Fire Rescue Department.