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Five decades and counting …

By Staff | Apr 10, 2012

After five decades of serving the local community, the Cape Coral Fire Department continues its push to provide quality service as demand grows.

On April 10, 1962, state officials chartered the department as a fire tax district because the Cape had not incorporated yet. By the time the city did so in 1970, the district had already built one fire station and had a truck.

The city abolished the district a year later and took over fire services.

Today the department oversees 10 fire stations, multiple fire trucks and apparatus including aeriel and marine, and an Emergency Operations Center.

“Obviously it’s a big milestone for a young community,” Division Chief Tom Tomich said of the CCFD’s 50th anniversary. “The significance, in part, has to do with the fire department preceding the incorporation of the city itself.”

Tomich has been employed at the department for about 35 years.

“I think, since the ’70s, we’ve all seen the department grow immensely with the rest of the city,” he said. “We run as many calls in a month that we ran all year long when I first got hired.”

According to Tomich, the CCFD received about 1,800 calls for service in March. In 1977, it would have taken seven to nine months to reach that number.

“We’ve really blossomed when it comes to the public knowing we’re there,” he said.

The motto for the anniversary is “Remembering yesterday. Serving today. Ready for tomorrow.” There is no sole event planned to mark the milestone.

“We have a wide variety of public events and ceremonial events that will happen throughout the year,” Tomich said. “We’re gonna make use of the city’s current events to recognize the fire department’s contributions to the city.”

At Monday’s City Council meeting, the first fire chief to be elected was recognized. The mayor will present a proclamation Thursday at City Hall.

The big kickoff will be during Saturday’s Bike Night in the South Cape.

According to Tomich, there will be a motorcycle parade in which some firefighters will be taking part. Firefighters will also participate in the slow bike race, and the Cape department will be recognized on the main stage.

One firefighter will even play a guitar rendition of the national anthem.

“It’ll give our folks a chance to interact with the community,” he said.

Over the years, the CCFD has had accomplishments and obstacles.

“I think we’ve made some great strides in the paramedic program,” Fire Chief Bill Van Helden, who has led the department for about 10 years, said.

“However, one of the greatest challenges we’re facing now is our response times have continued to degrade, and that’s simply because we’ve not been able to place additional fire stations in the community to keep up,” he said.

Once the fifth fastest growing city in the country, the Cape later became the epicenter of the housing crisis, both which affected the CCFD’s growth.

“I think one of the most important things is we keep ourselves positioned for recovery,” Van Helden said. “Continue to grow and meet the city’s needs.”

Future priorities for the department should include expansion into the community with additional fire stations and expansion of the paramedic program at additional stations – only four of the 10 stations have it.

“And then, continued growth of our special ops programs,” he said.

They cover hazardous materials response, technical rescue and more.

“We have to also grow with our partners – that’s other departments in the area,” Van Helden said, referring to mutual aid shared with nearby agencies.

Tomich agreed that more stations will be needed down the line.

“We’re certainly going to have to plan for more fire stations to deal with the demand,” he said, adding that the buildout for the city includes 20 stations.

“We’re only halfway there,” Tomich said. “We’re setting the groundwork still for what will be a very large responsive public agency in the future.”

He also listed an increase in training and having a training facility located within the city’s limits as additional priorities for the department. Tomich cited staffing levels and the high call volume as a reason for the facility.

“It’s makes it very difficult to leave the area for training needs,” he said.

“The population drives the requirements to keep up,” Tomich said. “The population growth and the calls for service didn’t slow down when the economy slowed down, although we had a temporary reduction in population.”

Call volumes at other local agencies either dropped or went unchanged.

“We saw an increase, and since 2009, every year we’ve had a 2.5 to 3.5 percent increase in calls for service,” he said. “It’s going steadily upward.”

Van Helden and Tomich also noted the department’s employees.

The chief referred to them as some of the best firefighters in Florida.

“This department’s fortunate in having very passionate and dedicated employees – the one thing that has been a very steady constant from the top to the bottom,” Tomich added. “I’ve never seen a lack of passion and a willingness to do whatever it takes to perform our duties.”

“I don’t think that will ever change,” he said.