By Nirvi Shah
Ever since it took Palm Beach County Fire Rescue more than 12 minutes to respond to the scene of a man choking in the county pocket last year — a call that ended in the man’s death — a group of the area’s residents have been clamoring for emergency service that comes from a much closer rescue agency.
Now they have it. Sort of.
Since March, Boynton Beach Fire Rescue — which is miles nearer to the area than the responding county fire station — has been called upon at least six times by Palm Beach County Fire Rescue to respond to calls for help from the county pocket. And Boynton has responded five other times to the area for other reasons.
That’s sizeable, considering that in a typical year, the area generates about 60 emergency calls or fewer. And it’s a few more calls than the county has responded to over about the same time period.
“I would say the number of calls has increased, especially those prior to May and those to Gulfstream County Park, where we have a longstanding policy to respond automatically,” said Barkley Garnsey, information/communication coordinator for Boynton Beach Fire Rescue.
But the response isn’t nearly enough for worried residents who still fear it will take too long for Palm Beach County to respond when there is another life-or-death call like last November, when county pocket resident Bill Dunn died during the 12 minutes it took for county emergency workers to arrive.
Although Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Steve Jerauld told The Coastal Star in March he wished in hindsight the county had called upon Boynton Beach, residents’ worries were heightened after a more recent article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in which county Deputy Chief Steve Delai said there was no reason to ask for Boynton’s help.
“Our unit was available and we were responding,” Delai told the Sun-Sentinel.
That frustrates Mike Smollon, who worked for Boynton Beach Fire Rescue for 28 years.
“For somebody that’s been in the business it’s just inconceivable to me that could happen,” he said. “We still don’t have any assurance that we’re going to get the closest assistance.”
One solution, to have Boynton Beach automatically respond to all calls from the county pocket, was rejected by city commissioners earlier this year in part because of the potential expense.
The county and city already have in place an aid agreement that allows one to help the other on a case-by-case basis. However, that means in most cases, for Boynton Fire Rescue to respond, the agency must be notified by Palm Beach County dispatchers of an emergency.
Another option is for a municipality to annex the county pocket, which would grant access to the emergency services offered by that city, but that doesn’t seem likely at the moment.
Smollon and other residents recently met with County Commissioner Steven Abrams to discuss their concerns about the lingering issue.
Abrams said the county is still working on a satisfying solution for the county pocket. “Of course, more work still needs to be done,” Abrams wrote in a letter to residents.
He said he conveyed his disappointment over Delai’s choice of words in the Sun-Sentinel story.
In addition, he said, Delai “committed to better training for our personnel to respond more readily to pocket emergencies.”
Smollon said if the county ensures dispatchers are trained to route the most life-threatening calls to Boynton Beach that could be the best scenario possible.
“If the county does what it’s supposed to it’s probably good enough,” he said. “This may be as good as it gets.”