OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County commissioners have again changed course on plans for County Fire Station 2, 3511 S.E. 38th Ave. After lengthy discussion at their June 27 meeting, the commissioners agreed to go back to the drawing board and reconsider the costs and benefits of several options:
• Renovate existing Station 2 without enlargement;
• Renovate existing Station 2 with enlargement;
• Build a new Station 2 at a new location;
• Demolish Station 2, demuck the site and build on the same site; or,
• Build a new station, move staff and then look at renovating Station 2.
At the May 23 meeting, after learning about stress cracks in the existing building’s foundation and the cost to stabilize the building, the commissioners opted instead to start looking for a site to construct a new building. “Instead of putting good money after bad, I think it’s time to look at a new location and new station,” said Commissioner David Hazellief. “I think it’s time to cut our losses,” agreed Commissioner Kelly Owens. “We’re trying to fix something that may not be fixable.”
At the June 27 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Fire Chief Ralph Franklin said he found three properties in the service area:
• A property at 5144 U.S. 441 S.E. is near the King’s Bay entrance. The 4.26-acre property is within 5 miles of Larkee Lakes and Okeechobee Hammock. The property is east of the bridge. Chief Franklin said he preferred to keep the station east of the bridge to avoid delays if there is an issue with the bridge. The property is not on the Rim Canal. It can be hooked up to water and sewer at King’s Bay. Locating there would be no significant change in the service area. Asking price for the land is $249,000.
• A property on U.S. 441 S.E., west of Pier II, has water and sewer available. The 6-acre site includes 2 acres of wetland. It is on the Rim Canal with access to a boat ramp. The chief said he is concerned that this property is west of the bridge. He is also concerned about the closeness of the planned roundabout. Asking price is $500,000.
• A third option is on U.S. 441 S.E., east of Pier 2. The asking price for the 26 acres property is $2.1 million. The owner’s preference is to sell the whole property. Purchasing 6 acres would be around $500,000. The chief said it is west of the bridge and has Rim Canal access.
Commissioner David Hazellief said the county will have to go out for RFPs (requests for proposals). There may be other people who have land for sale, he said. Any property considered would also have to be appraised.
Plans for the new station call for a larger kitchen, a total of seven dorm rooms and more storage than the existing station.
“We understand everything is subject to adjustment as you move forward,” the chief said.
The fire chief said they also have potential areas for new fire stations under consideration. He said new station locations will be chosen based on the largest benefit to the citizens with reduced response times, covering areas that are not currently within 5 miles of a station, and also with an eye toward the current call trends.
Future stations under consideration include:
• State Road 70 East: Adding a station on SR 70 East will reduce response time to the eastern area of the county. The chief said it would reduce response time to the landfill to about 10 minutes (currently it is about 18 minutes); reduce response time to Four Seasons to 6 to 8 minutes (from 12 minutes); and reduce response time to Spot in the Sun to about 8 to 10 minutes (from 14 minutes.)
• Fort Drum: The fire chief said the county already owns property there. Adding this station would reduce response time to Indian Hammock by 10 to 12 minutes; reduce turnpike response time to 10 to 12 minutes (currently response time is about 20); reduce response time to Fort Drum area by about 10 to 12 minutes; and reduce response time to the new FPL plant by 15 minutes. He said if the FPL plant develops Osowaw Road, that would reduce response time by about 20 minutes.
• The Prairie: This new station would reduce response time into the Prairie by about 15 minutes; reduce response time to Bassinger by about 10 minutes; reduce response time to Micco Bluff by about 15 minutes; and reduce response time to U.S. 98 at the bridge by about 15 minutes. Currently it takes about 25 to 30 minutes to get to Micco Bluff, according to the fire chief.
• Move Station 1: Station 1 is in the city limits. In the future, the county may move parts of that station to the general area of the airport, said the fire chief. The coverage area of the current station includes a lot of the city limits, which is covered by the city fire department. Moving part of that station would put the Lazy 7 area in the 5-mile radius coverage area.
The chief said all of these projected plans are subject to change depending on population growth and road construction.
After reviewing the cost of the land in the area, the commissioners opted to take another look all of the options.
Commissioner Bryant Culpepper, a retired firefighter, also pushed the idea of adding another smaller station elsewhere in the county instead of enlarging Station 2 to house more firefighter/paramedics.
“In fire rescue and in EMS especially, the faster you can get there, the more lives you can save,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “Smaller stations with smaller crews decrease response time.”
“Station 2 although it is not ideal, it’s not falling down,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “I am sure Station 2 is a bridge we are going to have to cross at one time, but right now I think it might be best to try to cover as many people as we can in the county.”
Commissioner Culpepper said the old fire station could be repaired to be used another 10 to 15 years.
“At first we talked about renovation, then we talked about addition,” said Commissioner Hazellief. “The high cost of an addition caused the county to consider the option of building a new station instead.”
He said they could consider renovating — not enlarging — the existing station, because enlarging the station would require excavation.