Suntree/Viera to lose beloved 'Tiller' fire engine
The Brevard County Board of Commissioners voted Nov. 1 to eliminate the Tiller at Brevard County Fire Rescue Station 80 in Suntree from the operations budget and put it up for auction.
photo by Linda Wiggins
It's been a love affair in the Suntree/Viera area. A nearly new fire engine out of Brevard County Fire-Rescue Station 80 in Suntree has been slashed from the operations budget and must be sold in a literal fire sale, the four-person crew also cut, reducing staff from nine members per shift to five in one of the busiest areas of the county.
BCFR paid nearly $1 million for the specially designed unit in 2013, “the Tiller” spending months in gestation in a Pierce fire engine factory in the Midwest. It is projected to fetch just $500,000 at auction.
The Tiller sits at the station unstaffed and unused. The Brevard County Commission voted unanimously to liquidate it at a Nov. 1 meeting, county staff estimating a savings of $850,000 per year for the vehicle and its four-person crew, which add up to 12 full-time positions for round-the-clock coverage.
A number of firefighters lamented the loss of the Tiller.
“It is great. The firefighters love it. It can fit into small spaces because the rear wheels can be directed by the rear driver, so it never has to make a three-point turn to get out of an enclosed space, and it has so many specific uses intentionally built into the design. It will be sorely missed,” said Richard Pierce, speaking in his capacity as president of Brevard County Professional Firefighters Local 2969, not as a firefighter on the Station 80 team.
The loss of the Tiller is a concern in the greater Suntree/Viera area as well, whether wending down the sole narrow road to South Merritt Island, or frequenting crashes along Florida's most dangerous stretch of Interstate 95 with its Swiss Army knife of applications.
“This is a shame. A huge loss,” said Palm Shores mayor Carol McCormack.
“Homeowners should be aware that while the county is trying to save pennies, they may personally have to pay a huge increase in their homeowners insurance.”
McCormack is referring to Brevard County's rating by the independent Insurance Services Office (ISO), Inc., which works on behalf of insurance companies and citizens. BCFR, which serves unincorporated areas such as Viera and Suntree, completed an audit in 2015 that takes place every five years for all fire departments. A greater number of trucks with ladders taller than 75 feet and close proximity of fire stations and hydrants improves an ISO rating and lowers insurance rates. The next audit will be completed by 2020.
The Tiller will only be in greater demand, McCormack continued, as the number of buildings in the area five stories and taller continues to grow. A seven-story, twin-tower senior living facility and 120-bed assisted-living facility under construction on Wickham Road near Station 80 is expected to create a noticeably increased daily demand on services, and a new five-story officeplex on U.S. 1 will open soon.
While the Tiller issue is an emotional one, the elimination of it is a practical one, according to BCFR Chief Mark Schollmeyer.
“The Tiller was designed at a time when we thought the new communities across from The Avenue Viera would have such small streets that we would need the nimbleness of the Tiller, but it did not turn out to be the case,” Schollmeyer said, adding that the water-storage capacity of the Tiller is limited and that the ladder is a “stick,” versus a bucket that can hold responders and victims. “We moved a bucket ladder truck over from Satellite Beach to Station 48 in Viera, so we feel confident the need is met.”
The Tiller purchase was made under a different BCFR administration with different goals and priorities, Brevard County Manager Stockton Whitten said in an interview with Viera Voice.
“Since then, we saw that the number of calls for this unit was a fraction compared with calls for the rescue unit and the fire engine at this station, so we took the four positions and put them in the (reserve pool) to fill in for firefighters so they don't have to work mandatory overtime, which is a huge inconvenience for them as well as a huge expense for us,” Whitten said.
The fire engine responded to calls 1,935 times in 2014, the rescue unit 2,317 times and the Tiller 324 times in its first full year, and the fire engine 1,977 times in 2015, the rescue unit 2,514 times and the Tiller 569 times.
An additional recent cost-saving measure was the elimination of a dedicated hazardous materials team at Station 48, which opened in west Viera in 2011. The four-person team responded 98 times in 2014 and 200 times in 2015, compared to about 2,000 times each for the fire engine and the rescue unit.
“We kept the equipment, but cross-trained the (remaining) staff so they can jump on the unit and respond to a hazmat incident as needed,” Schollmeyer said in an interview with Viera Voice.
This article was updated on Nov. 1, 2016.