Marion firefighters celebrate 30th anniversary

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By The Staff

Thirty years ago, Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR) did not exist. Instead, 20-plus independent volunteer fire departments were scattered around the county.

Each department was staffed with its own firefighters, owned its own apparatus and was headed by its own fire chiefs and boards of directors. Turf wars pervaded most districts, and jurisdictional lines hindered response.

In October of 1978, Marion County leaders hired the department’s first chief, then called a “fire coordinator.” Gene Gallant was tasked with uniting these individual departments into a cohesive countywide fire department.

Two fire chiefs and 15 years later, M. Stuart McElhaney became fire chief in 1994. Though growing quickly, MCFR still employed only 110 paid firefighters and 350 volunteers at the time. Many considered the department suspect at best, and some even called it a joke.

Within his first year on the job, McElhaney’s leadership provided much-needed stability and direction. The firefighters’ union settled its contract after six years of negotiations and the department progressed from providing basic life support (BLS) medical care which includes bandaging, splinting and administering CPR to providing advanced life support (ALS).

This ALS upgrade enabled MCFR paramedics to become the eyes, ears and hands of the emergency room physicians, allowing them to provide invasive procedures, such as IVs with medications in a pre-hospital setting. This significantly improved emergency medical response and made training a top priority.

Explosive growth and demand for better emergency response prompted Marion County Commissioners to adopt a 10-year-plan for MCFR that took effect Oct. 1, 2001. Since then, commissioners and fire rescue leaders have upheld and exceeded promises to hire 250 additional firefighters, build new fire stations and relocate existing fire houses.

Since establishing the plan, MCFR has hired an average of 30 new firefighters each year, built three new stations, relocated and rebuilt three other stations, significantly renovated two existing stations and converted two volunteer stations to accommodate full-time firefighters.

In 2009, MCFR will work to complete nine additional station construction projects, including opening new stations, rebuilding existing stations and renovating current stations. In southwest Marion County alone, MCFR will open Ray Lloyd Jr. Station 31 off C.R. 484, and Liberty Station 32 off S.W. 49th Avenue.

Department leaders will also relocate Friendship Station 21 from its current location on S.R. 200 to S.W. 90th Street near the new Lowe’s. These upgrades will significantly improve emergency response along the S.R. 200 Corridor as well as in areas such as Marion Oaks and the Florida Highlands.

Amazingly, as the department celebrates its 30th anniversary, one of the most significant events in Marion County history is occurring in the same year: MCFR’s provision of the ambulance service. MCFR became the county’s premier transport agency when the former ambulance service dissolved on Sept. 30. As a result, Marion County Commissioners tasked MCFR with adding ambulance transport to its growing mission.

With less than a year to plan, MCFR and county leaders established an operational plan, organizational structure, job descriptions and pay grades. This plan added 237 new positions, significantly increased the number of ambulances ready to respond and enhanced the quality of the ambulance service countywide. Now, 20 ambulances are staffed during non-peak hours (7 p.m. to 11 a.m.) and 27 ambulances are staffed during peak hours (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.).

The once all-volunteer department of the 1970s is now the second largest fire rescue department north of Orlando and 600 employees strong. This young department exemplifies insurmountable progress and professionalism; many of the department’s initiatives are modeled throughout Florida as best practices.

When residents need help, they can expect a quick, skillful response from MCFR’s dual-certified firefighter/paramedics and firefighter/EMTs, single-certified EMTs and paramedics and volunteer firefighters. These men and women respond to structure, brush and vehicle fires; medical emergencies involving cardiac arrest, respiratory distress and trauma; vehicle accidents requiring extrication; natural disasters and many other emergencies.

Crews can jump start your heart when it has stopped beating and breathe for you when your airway is compromised. They can save your life in the field and on the way to the hospital.

Heather Danenhower has served Marion County Fire Rescue for six years as the department’s public relations manager. Elaine DeIorio is a public relations intern and junior at the University of Florida majoring in political science and public relations. You may contact either at 291-8000 or e-mail heather.danenhower@marioncountyfl.org or elaine.deiorio@marioncountyfl.org.