LEESBURG — The merger of the Lee County Fire Department and Lee Emergency Medical Services became even more real to EMS personnel this week as they began their firefighter training.
Lee County Fire Chief James Howell said the county’s 49 emergency medical technicians have begun online training to prepare themselves to become certified firefighters.
The training, in addition to preparing the EMS personnel to actually fight fires, is one step in Lee County Commission’s effort to reduce fire insurance rates in some sections of the county.
“This is the first phase of the cross training,” Howell said. “We’re doing online courses on the computer first. It makes it easy to track each individual and allows them to advance and work at their own speed.”
“We’ll do the actual hands on training at some point.”
EMS personnel and firefighters are expected to complete 192 hours of training during the coming year. That training will be broken down into 96 two-hour segments.
Howell said firefighters will begin “basically the same training” in about two weeks. “This is just brand new to most of the paramedics,” Howell said.
In addition to the 49 EMS personnel, the county has 47 firefighters. These totals include both full-time and part-time workers, Howell said.
Meantime. an open house scheduled later this month for potential volunteer firefighters has been put on hold to give county officials time to sufficiently promote the event and attract a large turnout.
In addition to providing community service, volunteer firefighters have an opportunity to earn a state retirement benefit.
Howell said the county hopes to add at least 30 volunteers. A consultant hired by the Lee County Commission has proposed adding as many as three new substations in the county to be manned by volunteers.
The goal is to have virtually all of the county within five miles of a fire station.
“We want to recruit as many as we can” Howell said. “Experience tells me that all of the volunteers won’t complete the training process for physical or other reasons. People have changes in their lives, move out of town, have family issues and other things come up.”
Howell said some Lee residents have already expressed interest in becoming volunteers.
County Commissioner Greg Frich says he knows of at least three county residents who have expressed a desire to become volunteers.
Frich said he plans to meet with County Administrator Lynn Taylor and the consultants next week to discuss “options on time lines and the breadth of the program.”
Consultants with National Fire Services Office have proposed adding new equipment and several fire stations and substations. The price tag for the entire project is estimated at slightly less than $1 million.
How much the County Commission will fund has not been determined.
Lee Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge believes it is time for the entire commission to have that discussion.
“I feel like we are getting close to where we really need to meet,” Muggridge said. “This is something the whole board has to be heard on as to exactly where we are going.”