WMFR announces fire station open house
Firefighters and the community give it up for the kids.
West Manatee Fire Rescue will host an open house 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at Station 1, 407 67th St. W., Bradenton — and is billing it as the “hottest” event of the day.
Fun on tap includes bounce houses, a dunk tank — featuring “Dunk the Chief”— a face painter and a glitter tattoo artist, and close-up looks at the district fire engine, ladder truck and fire boat. There will be station tours, and an obstacle course for kids who will be provided with custom gear for the challenge.
And there will be music! Holmes Beach code enforcement officer JT Thomas will deejay the event.
Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and drinks will be free.
Community sponsors include Domino’s Pizza, providing 100 pizzas, Blake Medical Center, donating $1,000, Kiwanis Keys & Canes volunteers will be on hand to help during the event and Winn Dixie is providing drinks and cooks.
The WMFR open house is free and open to the public.
For more information, contact WMFR Fire Marshal Rodney Kwiatkowski at email@example.com or 941-201-7904.
West Manatee Fire Rescue inspectors will take their fire prevention show on the road.
National Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 6-12, and WMFR hopes to reach every student in its district, which includes Anna Maria Island, Cortez and portions of west and northwest Manatee County.
This year’s theme is “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape. Plan and Practice Your Escape.”
“West Manatee Fire Rescue’s goal is to have face-to-face contact with every student from pre-K through 5th grade in our district,” said Rodney Kwiatkowski, WMFR’s fire marshal, in a Sept. 25 email.
The National Fire Protection Association-sponsored week aims to call attention to the people who develop and practice a fire escape plan in their homes.
“These messages are more important than ever, particularly because today’s homes burn faster than ever” from synthetic fibers, lightweight construction and open spaces, according to Lorraine Carli, vice president of NFPA Outreach and Advocacy.
Kwiatkowski and WMFR inspectors will visit classrooms and present videos and materials to encourage students to create a plan and practice a family escape route in the event of a fire.
WMFR will visit Palma Sola Elementary School Sept. 30-Oct. 8, Anna Maria Elementary School Oct. 9, Stewart Elementary School Oct. 21-23 and Sunshine Academy Oct. 28-30, as well as daycares on dates to be determined.
WMFR will hold its annual open house, including a tour of Station 1, games and lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at 407 67th St. W., Bradenton.
Boaters were on their way to Kingfish Boat Ramp from Egmont Key when the man at the helm noticed his significant other — a woman in her 30s who had been with him — was missing.
The man searched the water as twilight became dark June 22, but to no avail. At 8:40 p.m., he called 911 on his cellphone.
West Manatee Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Ryan Moore reported the emergency rescue at the July 16 district commission meeting.
After a bit of confusion as to the whereabouts of the emergency, a WMFR team of firefighter/paramedics found the caller on his boat, east of Passage Key, in 17 minutes.
Five minutes later, using spotlights and heat-seeking, infrared night vision goggles, the rescuers spotted the woman struggling and yelling for help in the dark.
“It was a really good outcome to what could have been a horrible situation,” Moore said.
The WMFR team pulled the woman, who wore no life vest, into the district’s 30-foot rescue boat, rendered emergency first aid and transported her to Rod & Reel Pier in Anna Maria to an awaiting ambulance, which took her to Blake Medical Center in Bradenton with non-life-threatening injuries.
Moore led a crew consisting of Derrick Bill, Frank Agresta, Zachary Benshoff, Josh Adkins and Brendon Hostetler, who had hightailed the district boat from its dock at the Holmes Beach boat ramp on 63rd Street, near Westbay Point & Moorings.
“We were the closest unit and we were there first. The boat performed flawlessly,” he said, adding the rescue equipment played a role.
“We found her so quickly, the helicopters didn’t have time to get off the ground.”
The U.S. Coast Guard from the Cortez station and Manatee County emergency services, marine and lifeguard units also got the emergency call.
Moore told The Islander that people with similar emergencies aren’t usually as fortunate as the couple returning from Egmont Key that day.
He said, “Basically it’s just a head bobbing in water and people get exhausted very quickly.”
West Manatee Fire Rescue commissioners voted 4-0 to purchase vacant land in Bradenton to construct a new administrative building that could double as an emergency operations facility.
WMFR officials and the sellers, Yulara 2 LLC, inked the $295,000 contract July 16 after the vote. Commissioner George Harris was absent with excuse.
Site inspections of a 1.88-acre parcel at 701 63rd St. W. in Bradenton, are expected in the next 60 days, after which WMFR must “decide if it’s a go or no go,” Chief Tom Sousa said at the site July 17.
The vacant land, south of Manatee Avenue, next to Bealls and adjacent to Hidden Lake condominiums, is zoned residential-1 in Bradenton.
A zoning change to a public use designation, as well as stormwater and sewer services, are needed, Sousa said, adding the city is “willing to work with us.”
During the due diligence period, Sousa stressed the importance of identifying the cost of bringing sewer service to the Bradenton property, whether a tap into an existing line is possible or a more costly solution involving a gravity sewer is necessary.
To make this determination, Sousa expects the district to solicit three bids.
Sousa and Commissioner Randy Cooper teamed up to choose the possible sites.
A 5,000 square-foot buildout with parking is expected to meet the needs for office staff but, in the event of an emergency, the property, along with the possibility of using the nearby Beall’s parking lot, is large enough to accommodate fire and police fire equipment relocations, according to Sousa.
Staff includes incoming chief Ben Rigney, administrative personnel and three fire inspectors. The new building is planned for offices, meeting rooms and possible sleeping quarters for an on-duty battalion chief.
The building footprint could be expanded, according to Sousa and Cooper, if WMFR partnered in the project.
At the July meeting, the commissioners discussed the possibility of slicing off a portion of the property for another governmental or nonprofit use.
“One of the things that sold me” on the site was the possibility of selling or leasing part of the property, Commissioner Al Robinson said.
Commissioner Larry Jennis motioned for the commission’s approval, saying he preferred a vacant lot with no need for demolition of an existing building. Cooper seconded the motion.
“We went to several properties,” Cooper said, referring to the site search, which started at the beginning of the year and was whittled to two finalists in May after Bob Gause of Gause and Associates of Palmetto reviewed four sites for public utilities, stormwater restraints, parking and zoning regulations.
“And this has the most options for serving our district and our community. So I think we should go ahead with it,” Cooper added.
The commissioners voted to choose the 63rd Street property over a 0.65-acre parcel with an abandoned dental office, requiring demolition, at 6607 Third Ave. W., near WMFR’s Station 1 at 407 67th St. W.
At the May meeting, Commission Chair David Bishop noted the proximity of the office building to Station 1. Drawbacks to the site included the cost to remove the existing structure, ponding and setbacks that could have restricted the buildout.
The commissioners then directed staff to research and bring back contracts for consideration.
At the July meeting, Bishop initially recommended commissioners delay a vote to include Harris, who in May said he favored “the bigger the better” and liked the access to parking lots at the adjacent strip mall.
According to the contract, the seller is an administratively dissolved Florida limited liability company. Managers Maurice and Renee Healy of Palma Sola signed on behalf of the company.
A $25,000 deposit has secured the contract, which would be applied to the purchase price at closing. WMFR can decide to terminate the contract with a full refund of the deposit before the end of the inspection period.
The attorney for the fire district, Jim Dye, of Dye, Harrison, Kirkland, Petruff, Pratt & St. Paul drafted the contract and is holding the deposit.
The search for a new administrative building began after the district sold its former 11,500 square-foot administration building at 6417 Third Ave., Bradenton, to Oasis Middle School. That property was considered too large.
Sousa said he expects a two-year timeframe for construction.
WMFR will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, in its temporary headquarters of the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church, 6510 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.
More than 697 cases of improperly stored fireworks were discovered June 12 in a garage in Cortez by West Manatee Fire District and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
WMFR was tipped off to “pallets full of fireworks” being stored at 4436 124th St. W., Cortez, according to a district news release.
Inspector Rodney Kwiatkowski responded and spoke to the tenant, Bob Slicker. Slicker said he rents the residence from John Banyas, owner of Swordfish Grill & Tiki Bar, N.E. Taylor Boatworks, Cortez Bait and Seafood, a fish house and retail store, and Cortez Kitchen, a restaurant.
Slicker, who manages the Swordfish restaurant and bar, gave WMFR permission to enter the home.
Kwiatkowski took an inventory, consulted with the state fire marshal’s office and requested the sheriff’s assistance.
MCSO sent its bomb squad to the residence.
No charges were issued, according to an MCSO report, which determined the renter was not in violation of possessing illegal fireworks.
“The fireworks were to be returned to the company that sold them the following day,” Kwiatkowski said, adding he’d advised Slicker the fireworks needed to be stored 1,000 feet from a residence.
For the past two years on July 4, an unannounced fireworks display was launched from a barge in Sarasota Bay near the Banyas-owned businesses.
According to the fire inspector, “We do not know what the plans for the fireworks were. We only know the fireworks were being illegally stored.”
Calls and texts from The Islander June 28 to Banyas and Slicker for comment were not acknowledged as of press time.
Putting behind ideas about renting space for the long term, members of the West Manatee Fire Rescue Commission voted to move forward on a new administrative building that could double as a west side emergency operations center.
After a presentation from landscape architect and planner Bob Gause of Gause and Associates of Palmetto, the commission decided May 21 in two unanimous votes to pursue building options and research two parcels:
• A 1.88-acre vacant parcel at 701 63rd Street W., Bradenton, south of Manatee Avenue, next to the Bealls and adjacent to Hidden Lake, and
• A 0.65-acre parcel with a building, formerly used as a dental office, which would need to be demolished, at 6607 Third Ave. W., near WMFR’s Station 1 at 407 67th St. W.
The commission appointed Chief Tom Sousa and Commissioner Randy Cooper April 1 to select sites and negotiate a contract for a new building. Sousa selected Gause to perform due diligence for the selected sites.
The district is looking to construct a 5,000-square-foot building with parking. The two possible sites were winnowed from four parcels presented in the Gause report.
Commissioner Larry Jennis said he liked the 1.88-acre parcel.
Commissioner George Harris agreed, saying “the bigger the better” and that he liked the access to large parking lots in the adjacent outdoor mall.
Drawbacks to the Bradenton 63rd Street property include no direct access to sewer services and the need to change existing R-1 zoning, according to the Gause report.
Commission Chair David Bishop favored continued research on both sites, noting the proximity of the 0.65-acre abandoned office site to Station 1.
Issues for the office site include removing the existing structure, ponding and setbacks if considered by Manatee County as a public use facility.
Two possible sites were taken off the table — at the King Tennis Court Annex, 808 75th St. NW, and Palma Sola Presbyterian Church property, 6510 Third Ave. W., according to Gause and Administrative Battalion Chief Ben Rigney.
WMFR staff and Gause initially viewed the King Middle School site a top choice because of its central location and suitability for staging and storing emergency vehicles. But after a workshop with Manatee County School District staff, the district determined selling the property was “not in its best interest,” Rigney said.
The church property was deemed unsuitable after factoring in building-setback limitations.
Commissioner George Harris said he was discouraged by the few choices and liked the King property because it would have allowed WMFR to build a hardened building that could accommodate EMS and rescue boats that need higher clearance.
Commissioner Randy Cooper said, “We live in an off-the- rack world,” adding the choice will never be “100 % ideal.”
Robinson, who previously opposed the idea of a westside EOC and favored continuing to rent administrative offices, changed his position after Derrick Warner of Palma Sola Park spoke about his work as a former Illinois fire captain in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
An Illinois contingent of 575 firefighters, EMS and other personnel, along with 100 fire trucks, joined rescue workers from New York, Maryland and other states, and built a staging area on an 18-acre site for disaster relief.
“With the storm they had in New Orleans, they lost every fire station,” Warner said, adding only a few trucks and five fire chiefs from the city were part of the effort because the rest of the department personnel lost their homes.
“They sent us for a week and 45 days later they let us go home,” he added.
Warner also warned that he’s heard a hurricane “is not a matter of if, but when” from a Federal Emergency Management Agency official taking the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico in the area.
At the end of the meeting, Robinson pointed to Warner and apologized for previous remarks against the need for a hardened facility.
The commissioners’ motion to pursue the two sites included direction to staff to contact the owners of the properties near Bealls and Station 1, determine the specific costs and prepare an analysis for the commissioners.
WMFR will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at its temporary headquarters of the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church, 6510 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.
Residential property owners in the West Manatee Fire Rescue District should feel less of a pinch than their commercial counterparts when tax bills arrive in November.
District commissioners approved rate increases for 2019-20 — 1.65% for residential and 5% for commercial properties — by a 4-1 vote at their May 21 meeting.
Before the vote, Administrative Battalion Chief Ben Rigney reported on staff research that compared a zero rate increase for district assessments with increases of 1.5%, 2%, the residential 1.65% and commercial 5% and 2.5%.
He concluded a 2% increase and mixed residential/commercial hike would bring in about the same revenue and recommended the mixture.
The district’s current revenue is $7.4 million, which includes $7.14 million from assessments and $332,567 from grants, rental income from EMS, interest income and plan review fees.
Under the district-approved hike, WMFR research shows residential property owners will pay $303 for 2,000 square feet compared with the current $298 assessment. Commercial assessments will be $32.32 higher for the same square footage, rising to $678.69 under the 5% rate from the current $646.37 assessment.
Based on 2018 data, there are 18,839 residential and 578 commercial properties assessed in the district, including homes and businesses in unincorporated Manatee County, parts of Bradenton, Cortez and on Anna Maria Island. Exempt from the assessment are unusable vacant tracts, churches, parsonages, recreational areas, public institutions, military installations, railroads, rivers, lakes, submerged lands and certain properties for people with special needs.
After a public hearing, which was opened for comment but received none, Commissioner Al Robinson continued his past opposition to raising taxes, saying, “$180,000 is insignificant in a $7.3 million budget.” In April, Robinson favored no rate hike.
“It’s nice to give residents a little bit of a break,” said Commissioner George Harris, referring to the lower residential rate and past studies showing WMFR’s commercial rate was lagging compared to other districts.
Commissioner Larry Jennis agreed and motioned to approve a resolution on the rate hikes of 1.65% and 5%. Harris seconded the motion. Robinson voted no.
According to the resolution, the district is limited to a 5.8% increase in the average annual growth rate in Florida personal income over the previous five years based on U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data.
State law requires the district to adopt rates before June 1 each year.
The district has a resident population of 34,705, which fluctuates to include 13,000 nonresidents during tourist season.
WMFR employs 42 career officers, including 35 firefighters — three inspectors, six paramedics and four administrative personnel, including the fire chief — and about 20 reserve members for an 18-square-mile area.
What’s new with the old Cortez fire station?
In the past several months — since Mary Fulford Green, a FISH member and Cortez historian, floated an idea to West Manatee Fire Rescue about creating a district fire museum in the station — WMFR staff researched the ownership.
The fruits of the research brought a 1997 deed for 4523 123rd St. Court W. to the forefront at a WMFR commission meeting April 16.
The deed granted FISH the fire station with conditions that give the district rights to the property if WMFR requires the use of the property for fire protection services; FISH uses the property for other than a public purpose; FISH fails to remain a nonprofit; or FISH attempts to convey it to an entity other than a nonprofit.
The Anna Maria Fire Control District transferred the property to FISH at a time when volunteer departments — Anna Maria Fire District and the Westside Fire Control District — were preparing to merge into the WMFR district. The new district was created May 20, 2000.
WMFR Chief Tom Sousa told the commissioners he “stumbled upon” the deed while looking into the museum concept.
If FISH sold the property, the district would be asked to release the stipulations, according to Sousa. And if WMFR wanted to enforce a stipulation, court proceedings likely would ensue.
Sousa said he spoke to district attorney Jim Dye, who recommended clearing the deed of the stipulations with a quit-claim deed. He also called Karen Bell, FISH secretary, who advised she was unaware of the matter.
Dye recommended a new deed could be drawn up to prevent “this board and future boards any headaches,” Sousa said.
Dye told The Islander April 26, “If they want to get rid of the stipulations … a quit-claim deed is the best exit door.”
The commissioners had other ideas at their April meeting.
“I don’t see giving away any asset. If it’s not broke, why fix it?” Commissioner Al Robinson said.
Commission Chair David Bishop added, “We’re giving up something without getting something in return.” He didn’t see much liability maintaining the status quo.
The commissioners also spoke of the property’s value and location.
“We may want to move the EMTs there,” Robinson said, mentioning future access issues that could come with the Florida Department of Transportation plans for a high-span Cortez Bridge.
FISH president Kim McVey said April 24, “It’s been 22 years” that FISH has maintained the old fire station property, as well as paying its taxes and other expenses.
FISH receives income from leasing the building and recently purchased a new air conditioner for an apartment.
Jane von Hahmann, FISH vice president, said a Sea Scout group, which met from time to time in the building, stopped renting the space in October 2018.
All rent from the leases has gone into FISH coffers, which are managed by the nonprofit’s board, von Hahmann said.
Von Hahmann said she’ll be bringing up the WMFR inquiries to the board.
For future WMFR discussions, commissioners asked staff to list the pros and cons of releasing the deed stipulations, obtain an aerial photograph of the property and arrange a tour.
WMFR will meet in a workshop and regular meeting at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 21, respectively, upstairs at the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church, 6510 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.
The next FISH board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Monday, May 6, at Fishermen’s Hall, 4515 124th St. W., Cortez.
More than a million dollars in taxpayer money is at stake.
A proposed $1.4 million purchase of a new administration building drew opposing views April 16 from district commissioners during the first meeting on the proposed 2019-20 West Manatee Fire Rescue budget.
Another money issue — about whether and how much to raise WMFR’s assessment — also was met with differing opinions.
WMFR sold its administration building at 6513 Third Ave. W., Bradenton, to eliminate debt, downsize and acquire a facility designed to withstand a hurricane, according to WMFR Chief Tom Sousa.
The move to headquarters at the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church was billed as temporary.
There will be more talks on both issues after staff research.
Sousa and Battalion Chief Ben Rigney — named incoming chief effective in November — presented the budget based on an assessment hike of 2%, which Rigney said would bring in an additional $145,000.
The commission will be able to review and adjust the proposal because the budget is not adopted until August, according to Sousa. An increase in the assessment also would need commission approval.
The current assessment brings in $7.26 million for the district that serves almost 20,000 parcels, including properties on Anna Maria Island.
A proposed new building
Under a proposal presented April 16, $1.4 million was budgeted for a new “hardened” permanent facility with staff offices, training facilities and meeting rooms that would double as a westside emergency operations center for storm or other disaster situations.
Commissioners debated the need for the capital outlay, with Chair David Bishop leading the discussion by asking Al Robinson, WMFR’s liaison to the island cities, whether he would ask the municipal leaders to consider contributing to the new building.
Robinson, however, changed the discussion to whether a capital outlay was necessary.
“I’m sitting here and it blows my mind that we’re thinking about building another building for $1.4 million. Why do we want to do this?” Robinson asked.
He also spoke in favor of remaining in the temporary offices at the church.
“We’re doing this church a service, helping them survive, keeping money in the community,” he said.
The district is paying $3,500 per month on an annual lease for 3,500 square feet, according to Rigney, who said the district also has the option to vacate during the contract year.
Commissioner George Harris said he’d favor the new building if it was saleable for another use if WMFR merged with another district.
The ability to sell the building is important, Commissioner Larry Jennis agreed, adding that while an administration building could be repurposed, he was uncertain about the market for an EOC.
“I think our immediate need is as an administrative office and westside EOC,” Commissioner Randy Cooper said, adding a merger is too speculative.
Important to Bishop is having a facility suitable to protect the computer equipment and other assets.
The consensus among commissioners was it is too early to approach the island cities about a westside EOC.
“Really there’s no existing property at any of our three stations,” Sousa said about permanent relocation options.
“I think it’s insane to spend big money for seven people,” Robinson said, referring to the number of current WMFR staff.
Cooper, Harris and Sousa pointed out more personnel would relocate to an emergency center in the event of a disaster, including city officials from the island.
“You can always do ‘what ifs’ and you can never do enough. You have to ask what’s practical,” Robinson added.
Sousa summarized the commissioners’ questions for staff research:
- What is considered a “hardened” facility?
- What size building is needed?
- How many people will work day-to-day in the building?
- Do we want to be owners or renters?
- In the event of a merger with another district, could it be sold?
- How would the building operate as an emergency center before, during and after a hurricane?
- How would Manatee County emergency operations benefit if the building becomes a westside EOC?
The proposed assessment hike
Robinson also took a hard line about raising the assessment rate, saying he favored no rate hike despite the 2% increase recommended by staff.
The increase would impact residential and commercial assessments.
According to Rigney, residential customers currently pay $5 per 2,000 square feet, while commercial customers pay $13 for the same area.
Rigney said their research indicates the surrounding fire districts are proposing more of an assessment increase than WMFR.
Another consideration is the cost of collective bargaining.
The firefighters’ union and the administration recently negotiated a 3% increase in wages.
Sousa said WMFR may have done “too good of a job” in its negotiations, noting a recent salary comparison of area districts showing WMFR on the low side. The district should prepare for bargaining that could raise union firefighters’ wages, he said.
By a consensus of commissioners, the staff was directed to provide a budget breakdown based on no increase, and 0.5%, 1.5% and 2% increases.
The district employs 35 firefighters — three inspectors, six paramedics and four administrative personnel, including the fire chief — to serve an 18-square-mile area with 19,824 parcels.
WMFR will meet in a workshop and a regular meeting Tuesday, May 21, at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively, upstairs at the Palma Sola Presbyterian Church, 6510 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.