The evolution of Destin firefighting

Sheri Kotzum | 315-4353 | @DestinLogSheri | skotzum@thedestinlog.com

Since 1971, the Destin Fire Control District has covered the area from the East Pass to the county line and from the Gulf to the Bay.

But what exactly is a Fire Control District and why was it formed? The Log recently sat down with Destin Fire Chief, Kevin Sasser to learn about the history of the special district.

Destin did not have a fire department until 1961. That was the year the Destin Lions Club decided to start a fire department for the still sleepy little fishing village. Through fundraising, they gathered money for Destin’s first fire engine and organized the Destin Lions Fire Department. They named the Lions Club president, Jimmy Vaughn, the first fire chief and operated for four or five months before deciding the department should be a community project.

In 1962, they gave the truck to the Destin Beach Volunteer Fire Department, which was a separate organization, and fire chief Ernest Gardner. The volunteer department consisted of more than 30 volunteers who were trained by the Eglin Air Force Base Fire Department.

In the early '70s, the Florida Legislature created legislation that allowed communities to form special districts based on what they felt their needs were as a community. In 1971, the Destin Fire Control District came into existence as a independent government body.

“There’s a difference between independent and dependent districts,” Sasser said. “Dependent means you’re created and dependent on the county. Okaloosa Island was created by Okaloosa County. Dependent means you were created by legislator, like Ocean City and Destin.”

Sasser said the fire district still has to abide by laws that apply to counties and cities as far as public records, operations, record retention and other items, but they have their own charter. A special district has an elected board of commissioners, whose sole responsibility is to ensure the service the district was created for is provided.

“I really like the five I work for,” Sasser said of the current fire commission. “Their focus is fire rescue. They aren’t juggling multiple departments or multiple department heads. They don’t have to worry about anything else other than fire rescue.”

The commissioners are elected in nonpartisan elections by the citizens of the district and serve a four-year term. While the districts charter states the commissioner can be paid a salary of up to $500 a month, they can elect to waive that pay. There are no limits to how many times a commissioner can be re-elected. Commissioner Tommy Green, who is the commissioner for Group 4, has served on the board since 2000 and has never taken a dime.

“It’s not about the money” Green said. “I’m here to help the firemen and the taxpayers, that’s it.”

While most people assume the district covers the entire city of Destin, that’s actually not the case. Destin was not incorporated into its own city until 1984, 13 years after the fire district had began serving the residents. There are still some areas that the district serves that are not technically a part of the city of Destin, like Kelly Plantation, Destin Commons and Legendary Marina.

“If you go north of Emerald Coast Parkway from the county line to Two Trees Road, if it’s in that block, that’s unincorporated,” Sasser. “It lies in the county but, yet we provide that service.”

The district gathers ad valorem taxes from real estate, impact fees from new developments and various re-inspection and plan review fees. The funds gathered from ad valorem taxes are used to pay salaries and anything that ensures the district’s service is provided. But the impact fees must be spent in a very specific way.

“Impact fees have to be spent on a new fire station or a new piece of equipment, not a replacement,” Sasser said. “If I already have a fire engine and I need to replace it, I can’t use impact fees, I have to use ad valorem taxes for that. But if I need a second one, I can buy the new truck with the impact fees.”

For example, the proposed fire station at Clement Taylor Park can be built using impact fees, but if the station was to revitalize the old fire station by the community center, they could not use impact fees.

The district has accomplished a lot in the past 48 years, including the Destin Beach Safety Patrol and becoming certified in advanced life support.

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