Palm Coast - Times of uncertainty, panic and concern are no match for Palm Coast firefighters.

In addition to fighting fires and providing EMS services to residents, the Palm Coast Fire Department oversees emergency management for the city. And this is especially the case during wildfires or heightened tropical weather events. But in 2020, COVID-19 entered the mix delivering a new set of challenges. But through their steady leadership, expertly-trained professional approach and calming community presence, the Fire Department worked alongside county emergency management officials to deliver safe and timely responses to all calls for service.

Fire leadership analyzed and executed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and guidance for city department operations, city facility reopenings and other city business involving interactions between people. To better protect themselves on the job, reusable and sanitizable head gear worn to fight fires were adapted for use on medical calls to protect firefighters from potential COVID exposure, while disposable masks and other PPE were in short supply.

At the same time, spring dry months signal prime wildfire conditions which requires resources be adequately planned and prepped at a moment's notice. As Mother Nature continued routine plans that come with Florida summers, the team managed response to 2020's Tropical Storm Isaias and other potential storm threats throughout the season.

Also in 2020, the team completed additional training, implemented a new county-wide radio system and utilized new fire incident pre-plan software. They also honed the fire apparatus replacement program and built on the department's cancer reduction program for firefighters by acquiring a second set of bunker gear and adhering to clean cab and decontamination procedures.

It was also a significant year for planning the future of the fire department. They collaboratively created the fire department's ten-year plan - a blueprint designed to provide direction in nine strategic areas. During the decade, department members will research and create plans to improve their deployment to emergencies, community outreach programs, firefighter training effectiveness, firefighter safety and wellness and other areas of administrative support. In 2020, the city council implemented this plan and supported an impact fee for new fire stations and equipment for new fire houses.

Efforts by firefighters and command staff have led to a major accomplishment this past year. The team earned the prestigious Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating of 2, the second best public protection class that places the City of Palm Coast in the top 1.1 percent statewide and top 1.3 percent in the nation. This plays a major role in property insurance rates for local residents and businesses.

Nelson Mandela once said, 'the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.' In that respect, the department conducts an Intern Firefighter Program to begin the onboarding process for prospective firefighters. In 2020, the command staff broadened the program to include all of Flagler County. In this program, interns receive mentoring and training to master skills associated with patient care and firefighting.

Similar to the intern program, firefighters can advance into leadership positions through a method known as 'succession planning.' This allows lieutenants to work in the capacity of their supervisors (known as ride-up), for purposes of training and development; all fire operations ranks now include ride-up programs.

In 2021, the team continues to manage the ongoing COVID-19 response and prepare for the upcoming wildfire and hurricane seasons. To keep themselves in great health condition, they will utilize a $150,000 fitness and wellness grant for equipment and training to enhance firefighter health and fitness levels.

Challenges from the pandemic made it tough for the fire department to conduct outreach. But in 2021, they hope to get back into the community and are re-energized to start a new Junior Firefighter Program. Youth ages 13 to 17 will get hands-on experience at learning about a career in firefighting and public safety. This program can be a valuable recruitment tool to help find a new stream of volunteers, interns and community supporters that will be the backbone of the department for years to come.

While this is only a partial list of all the important work being done by your fire department, it captures some of the highlights these frontline public servants have accomplished in keeping residents safe.

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