Why Highland Beach is breaking away from Delray to create its own fire rescue department

A Delray Beach Fire Rescue truck pulls away from the Highland Beach Fire Rescue Station No. 6 in Highland Beach, Fla., on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.
A Delray Beach Fire Rescue truck pulls away from the Highland Beach Fire Rescue Station No. 6 in Highland Beach, Fla., on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

HIGHLAND BEACH — For more than 30 years, Highland Beach residents have depended on Delray Beach Fire Rescue’s services. But no longer.

On Sept. 13, the Palm Beach County Commission voted unanimously to allow Highland Beach to establish its own fire-rescue department. It will mark the first time in three decades that a city within the county has created a fire-rescue agency.

The move will save taxpayers at least $2 million per year, according to a report conducted by Matrix Consulting in May.

As it works right now, there is one fire station in Highland Beach, but it is staffed by Delray Beach firefighters. The report found that more than 2,000 trips per year are made to Delray Beach from trucks stationed in Highland Beach. 

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“The figure just about floored everyone,” Highland Beach Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman said, describing the consultant’s study as long, engaged and specific. “I just figured it’d be a savings. (But) $2 million per year after startup — it’s a very sizable amount.”

Delray Beach officials are not so sure.

The major issue is that Highland Beach does not yet have a revenue stream to operate such a department, Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey said.

And while Highland Beach pays its neighbor Delray Beach nearly $5 million per year for fire rescue services, Tomey said Highland Beach residents get benefits not included in that sum, including training, 24-hour monitoring, and human resources personnel.

Gossett-Siedman said she was concerned about the forecasted growth in costs projected to  reach nearly $6 million by 2026, when the contract would've ended had the town not decided to start its own department.

What are the next steps for Highland Beach's new fire rescue department?

Highland Beach Fire Rescue is expected to debut in May 2024, Gossett-Siedman said. It will have two full medical transports, two fire ladder trucks and a fire chief car.

Glenn Joseph, who formerly served as fire chief in Boynton Beach and deputy chief in Boca Raton, has been named the new department's chief. With more than three decades of fire service, Joseph said he saw the opportunity to build a fire department from the ground up as one he couldn't miss.

Right now, the designs for the new station are being finalized. And initial estimates point to 28 employees at the new fire and rescue, Joseph said. These are still preliminary numbers, though, and the actual hiring process will begin in about a year and a half.

What will happen to Delray's 22 firefighters who work the Highland Beach area?

Any firefighter from Delray Beach who wants to work at the new Highland Beach department would be given preference, Joseph said. And Delray currently has 22 open positions, Tomey said.

"So nobody will be laid off," Tomey said.

The Palm Beach County Commission's vote comes after a referendum last fall in which Highland Beach residents overwhelmingly approved the $10 million initiative for a new fire department. The plan had a 92% approval rate.

The department will serve the town's roughly 4,000 residents.

Joseph's hope is that the new department will serve as a community-based operation, rather than a contract-based one.

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"So the community will have complete control over the quality and the extent of the services they provide," Joseph said. "I hope that the department that we're creating will have a more active role in community risk reduction, meaning public education, addressing any kinds of issues with life safety in the community. I hope that the department will also be more proactive with things like CPR courses and first aid."

Jasmine Fernández is a journalist covering Delray Beach and Boca Raton at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at jfernandez@pbpost.com and follow her on Twitter at @jasminefernandz. Help support our work. Subscribe today.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Highland Beach breaks from Delray to create own fire rescue department