How did local fire departments come into existence?
Early in American history humans settled into small towns and communities where fire was essential for heat, light, cooking and business activities. These towns and communities could easily catch fire and burn down because people were careless. So groups of people would band together to fight fires to prevent damage and make it easier to rebuild.
Pre-Civil War, a few entrepreneurs decided that firefighting could be a business. So a businessman would create a “fire brigade,” buy a wagon, water trough, some buckets, hire some employees and wait for a building to catch on fire. It was a common sight to see the owner of a building negotiating the price to put a fire out with the owner of the local fire brigade or insurance company while the building was burning.
After the Civil War, people began living closer together, especially in the northeastern cities. As buildings and property value increased, insurance and salvage companies became the most frequent owners of fire brigades to reduce losses. Competition was fierce in these times. If a building were burning down and the closest fire brigade was owned by a competing insurance company, its employees would watch the building burn to the ground. As history moved forward, it became clear letting insurance and salvage companies create and manage fire departments was not in the public’s best interest.
Hence, we have the modern fire districts as we see in Collier County. Fire districts were created when residents would organize, create a referendum and then place it on the ballot for public vote. The referendum listed the boundaries of the fire district and stipulated that the residents within agreed to be taxed to fund the operation. The local referendum promoted the idea of local control and made the local fire brigade or department responsible to the people of the community.
Since the 1950s, fire districts in Florida counties have been set up primarily to respond to fires in structures. The mission for response to a structure fire has always been: protect human life, put the fire out and protect surrounding structures. As more people came to Florida, there were more roads and more cars. Fire departments had to adapt to responding to any situation that could involve fire such as auto collisions, train derailments, plane crashes, etc.
The five independent fire districts created by referendum in Collier County are: Immokalee, Big Corkscrew Island, Golden Gate, East Naples and North Naples.
Each of these fire districts has evolved over time, but their primary mission is the same — to protect human life, put out a fire and protect property. When each fire district was created it was the perception by the residents they would do whatever was necessary to protect life and homes from burning down. Because of this history, there is no government agency that functions as closely to the needs and concerns of a community as the five Collier County independent fire districts.
Golden Gate Estates has demonstrated a way a home can be lost by fire that did not ignite inside a structure, and that is by a wildfire. There are 40,000 homes in the Estates surrounded by vegetation. This vegetation needs to be subjected to a burn every five to 10 years; if not, conditions for a catastrophic wildfire are created.
Local fire districts believe they have no responsibility in assisting with managing such vegetation. Fire districts want to shift all that responsibility to the Florida Forest Service. The result is Golden Gate Estates residents are subjected to agency apathy.
A “paradigm shift” is needed for all fire districts in order to better serve their constituents. Local fire districts should realize that the residents pay them to do whatever is necessary to protect their homes even if it requires “thinking out of the box.” Big Corkscrew Island and Golden Gate fire districts need to begin doing fire-dependent vegetation management in the Estates to prevent a wildfire from starting and burning houses down.
It is 1,000 times better to prevent a wildfire from reaching a house and burning it down, than to show up after the house has caught on fire.
More articles on the Estates and wildfire ar at www.estates-civic.org/.