Second of two parts
History played a big part in Stuart Herndon's house burning down in early April.
What happened to Herndon, 52, should never happen to another Lake County citizen.
When his house ignited April 2, the stucco worker was caught in a fight between a city fire department trying to make a political point and a county fire department whose territory stretches farther than its budget.
Although Herndon lives a little more than a quarter-mile outside Mascotte, city firefighters — the ones closest to his house — refused to come even though they were available, leaving those from a county station nearly 10 miles away racing to the blaze. It was an inferno easily visible from the Mascotte station by the time Lake County Fire Rescue arrived about 10 minutes later.
How this happened is a story of bad blood between county and city fire departments that stretches back 40 years. But the people of Lake County, who pay all these salaries, have a right to demand that folks in the fire service drop the animosity and work to keep all houses from burning down.
For a while, the county paid several cities, including Mascotte, to cover areas just outside the city limits — sometimes even surrounded by cities — but were hard for Lake, with its far-flung stations, to get to quickly.
Then, like every other government agency, the county ran short on money and stopped paying. But it still expected the cities to respond in emergencies.
Of course, the cities got tired of that. They feel that they shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars collected from city residents to cover those in the unincorporated county regularly.
So some of them, including tiny Mascotte, stopped running to the calls.
Mascotte City Manager Jim Gleason said the "dysfunctional" system was at its worst when he came to the city in February 2011. Thirty percent of the calls to which Mascotte responded at the time were in the county, he said, and the city had to have more equipment and more people to keep up with the calls.
"The part that the county doesn't want to recognize is that they're asking our citizens to pay a cost that they're not willing to ask their own citizens to pay for," he said. "They have a responsibility to look county residents in the eye and say, 'We're sorry to put you in this situation.' "
Gleason said he sympathizes with the homeowner whose place is afire — why should that person care whose name is on the truck? But the fault lies with the county, which has forced the city into the role of bad guy.
"Let's be fair about it: The county should offset the cost," he said.
The folks in the county fire department in Tavares have a different view.
Assistant Chief Jim Dickerson said he calls a city for help when he knows that it has a station closer than one of his. Many of the county's stations are in more rural areas, where no other fire department is close.
He said he got into the fire service 30 years ago to help people, regardless of whether they live on one side or another of a political line. He simply can't fathom letting someone lose a home when personnel and equipment are close enough to stop it. In his view, it's just wrong.
He pointed out that not all the cities refuse to help. Eustis, for example, is a terrific partner, he said, while Clermont, Minneola, Mascotte, Mount Dora and Tavares have refused to respond to some calls and in other cases won't allow county firefighters to answer calls inside the city even though the county station is closest.
"There's bad blood — something underlying. I haven't been able to figure it out," said Dickerson. "We just try to take the high road."
It is imperative that firefighters on both sides put aside the bickering and resentment from past offenses. There is simply no excuse for the closest fire company to sit in the station when a Lake County resident's home is burning.
The cities have made their point, and this must be worked out.
Last week, Lake County Chief John Jolliff said talks are in the "infant stage" with Clermont about how 500 calls a year in a 30-square-mile area of Four Corners area will be answered.
Clermont's longtime chief, Carle Bishop, said that ultimately, the county probably will pay the city per-call to respond when its stations are farther away. He speculated that the final cost would "probably be more than what we offered to do the whole area for in the first place."
Bishop said, "The pressure is finally getting bad enough that they have to do something."
Of course it is. Some cities are squeezing the county like a starving anaconda, and citizens are the ones choking in the middle. Stop it.
From this moment on, residents in both the cities and the county — yes, it happens both ways — should get service from the nearest station in the event of an emergency while firefighters come to an agreement for how to fund the deal.
Consider this: How would those Mascotte firefighters sitting in their station have felt if they later learned that a person who could have been saved had died in the fire that took Herndon's home?
Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at facebook.com/laurenonlake.