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Mehlville firefighter Robert Strinni, standing, speaks with residents during the first meeting of the district's public engagement program, the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Emergency Services, or FACTS, that will help chart the district's future.

First FACTS meeting draws roughly 75 MFPD residents

Roughly 75 Mehlville Fire Protection District residents gathered last week for the first meeting of the district's public engagement program, the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Emergency Services, or FACTS, that will help chart the district's future.

District officials were pleased with the turnout, terming the meeting an overwhelming success, according to David Gralike, who serves as secretary on the district's Board of Directors.

FACTS is designed to involve residents in developing recommendations that will provide fire and emergency medical solutions to meet future needs for the entire community. The group will meet two to three times a month until August to study key issues, define the district's needs and reach consensus on potential solutions.

At the end of the process, participants will present recommendations to the Board of Directors — Chairman Tom O'Driscoll, Treasurer Dan Ottoline Sr. and Gralike — for consideration.

The community chairs of a Facilitating Team — Gail Chatfield, a retired state fire marshal; Bill Cocos of Cocos Plumbing Co.; Judith Wideman, branch manager of Coldwell Banker Gundaker; and Dave Sinclair of Sinclair Ford in south county — plan to present recommendations to the board by mid-August.

Among the other Facilitating Team members are Gralike, who will serve as liaison to the board; Chief Ray Haddock; representatives of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters; and other district employees and administrators. Facilitating Team members joined joined residents, firefighters and paramedics, administrators and family members at the May 26 meeting.

After a presentation from Deputy Chief Steve Mossotti, who provided an overview of the district, residents were given a "small-group activity'' in which they were charged with answering two questions — what they learned about the district that surprised, intrigued or concerned them, and what key questions or issues need to be addressed in each of the given topic areas, such as facilities, equipment and staffing.

The public responded to the presentation with several groups voicing concerns about the actions taken to control costs, including the delays in purchasing equipment, the public education classes that were halted so that the district would not have to pay personnel teaching the classes, and increased response time due to staff reductions through attrition.

Many residents said they were surprised to learn about the district's extensive coverage, including 1 million square feet of underground commercial storage in the Bussen Quarry area, nearly 12 miles along the Mississippi River with 6 miles of bluffs and 13 miles along the Meramec River, plus more than 20 caves within the district, and that the country's worst fatality cave incident occurred at Cliff Cave.

Questions raised by residents included whether the district used requests for proposals when purchasing equipment, whether the district sought grant money to supplement its finances, and whether district officials would consider a bond issue rather than a general fund tax increase to fund some of the district's needs.

This year the district is 50 years old, established in 1954 when a bond issue passed for equipment needs and paid personnel. The district began as a volunteer fire district when trucks ran out of the rear of a gas station at Lindbergh Boulevard and Lemay Ferry Road. Today the Mehlville Fire Protection District has seven fire stations and one dispatch center, Mossotti explained to the public.

To explain the financial situation, Mossotti presented examples of the district's overhead cost increases, including the "big buzz'' affecting the district — health insurance premiums, which increased 47.5 percent from 1998 to $1.43 million last year. Workers' compensation premiums also saw an increase of 59.8 percent from 1998 to $704,018. Fuel increased by 41.5 percent since 1998 to $53,974, and utilities increased 14.1 percent to $77,439.

In 2002, Mossotti said, the district recognized the cost increases and took actions to control costs, such as those mentioned later by residents as their concerns — reduced staff, the elimination of public education classes and the delay of equipment purchases. The staff reduction, through attrition, went from 147 employees in 2002 to 133 employees today, he said. The training officer, 10 firefighters and two paramedics were not replaced.

One of the district's ambulances is not in service 60 percent of the time, while a rescue squad is not staffed about 50 percent of the time, both resulting in increased response time and greater reliance on mutual aid trucks from neighboring districts, he said.

This was the first of eight scheduled FACTS meetings, the orientation informing the community about the Mehlville Fire Protection District and what it does. The next meeting on June 16 will discuss the district's equipment; June 30, staffing; July 14, facilities; July 17 a facilities tour; July 28, finances; Aug. 4, draft recommendations will be formulated; Aug. 11 the group will finalize and adopt recommendations; and Aug. 16 will be the final meeting with a presentation to the Board of Directors. All meetings will begin at 7 p.m. at the district's headquarters on Mueller Road in Green Park.

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