Mount Dora Fire Chief talks Fire Safety

Chief Stephen "Skip" Kerkhof

For Mount Dora Fire Chief Stephen “Skip” Kerkhof, firefighting is much more than a just job, it’s a calling.

Kerkhof, who came to Mount Dora from Orlando, has been a firefighter for 37 years.  “I started out in Miami, worked as a firefighter during the race riots of the  1980s.  That was enough of Miami for me.  I came up to Orlando and worked there until six years ago, when I came to Mount Dora,” Kerkhof explains.

Kerkhof came to Mount Dora six years ago in the role of Deputy Chief, under then Fire Chief Ronald Snowberger.   When Snowberger moved on to DeLand, Kerkhof moved up into the role of chief.  He then brought Timmons Griner, his current Deputy Chief, on board.  Griner had worked for Kerkhof in Orlando and lives in the Mount Dora area, so it was a comfortable transition for both.

“The entire Mount Dora Fire Department consists of 25 people,” say Kerkhof.  “There is the chief, the deputy chief, the staff assistant and inspector as well as 21 people who work shifts.” Mount Dora has two fire stations, one at Donnelly and Lincoln Avenue (station 34) and one on County Road 19A (station 35).  Four are assigned per shift at station 34 – two on the rescue vehicle, two on the engine.  Two people work the engine at station 34.  “We have two engines and a rescue vehicle manned 24/7, and we allow for a rotation of one person being off for vacation, training, or sick leave, but it’s tight.   We do need a third person at station 35, and we have requested that in this year’s budget,” he explains.

According to industry standards, Kerkhof says he is currently short-staffed, but making the most of it.  “We should always have a minimum of 3 people on a unit, with a minimum of four people at any fire – two inside and two outside. Staffing levels are about safety for the employees and quality of service for the residents,” he says.

Manpower also has a direct effect on a community’s ISO rating – the Insurance Services Organization that utilizes community fire service data to help define premiums on fire insurance rates for communities. The for profit organization rates departments on a 10-1 scale,  one is the best possible rating.  Mount Dora’s ISO rating is 3. To lower the number and improve the rating, improvements in the fire protection infrastructure, delivery of service methods, response times, adequate staffing, water supplies, must be proven.

Firefighter Casey Forney, Sr. Engineer Keith Bernier, Lt. Bobby Liles, Fire Chief Skip Kerkhof
Firefighter Casey Forney, Sr. Engineer Keith Bernier, Lt. Bobby Liles, Fire Chief Skip Kerkhof

“ISO ratings are largely driven by water supply and manpower,” explain Kerkhof.  “For example, when John Peters and council (public works director for Mount Dora) pushed for infrastructure improvements downtown, that helped our ISO rating.”

“Right now, I am working to towards fire department accreditation.  That would also help,” he says.  “It’s tough to get accredited.”  There are over 27,000 registered fire departments in the United States.  As of March, 2016 there are only 220 accredited agencies in the United States, according to the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI).  According to the CFAI, accreditation provides assurance to the employees and the public that the fire department is well run, with appropriate objectives established for the communities they serve, while providing methods for addressing deficiencies to build success, among other objectives.

Right now, Kerkhof is concerned his department won’t make the grade.  “It takes five people to effectively work a code (slang used to describe cardiopulmonary arrest).  One gathers info, one does compressions, one works the victim’s airway, one pushes drugs through an IV and one gathers all the appropriate medications – medications that can only be administered by a paramedic.  The most we usually are able to have on scene is four people.”

Kerkhof says that 70-80 percent of the department’s calls are for medical issues.  “We get calls on people falling, cardiac issues, and auto accidents frequently.”  With the highways that surround Mount Dora, Kerkhof says the frequency and ferocity of car accidents to which his department responds were a shock to him when he first arrived from Orlando.  We respond to accidents on US 441, Highway 46 and 44 – I was amazed at the severity of the accidents – it’s phenomenal how bad they are at times, with the speeds and volume of traffic those routes support.”

Kerkhof's office with memorabilia he has collected over the years
Kerkhof’s office with memorabilia he has collected over the years

But it’s not only accidents or fires that require a quick response from his department, says Kerkhof.  “We do a bit of everything here,” he smiles.  “You know that Ghostbusters tagline, ‘Who Ya Gonna Call?’ – that’s us.  If people don’t know who to call, they call the fire department.  Everything from – literally – the cat in the tree, to opening locked cars, to any medical emergency you can imagine, we respond.”

His people also work with local businesses to inspect at least once per year.  “We inspect for compliance with safety regulations, but we also inspect for pre-fire plans,” Kerkhof says.  “We do site plans of businesses that carry hazardous items, showing where those items are located, where water connections, exits and things are located.  Then we transmit those plans to Eustis and Tavares.  That way, if we respond together, each department knows where the significant areas of importance for safety are located.”

Kerkhof’s department played a big role in storm recovery activity after a severe microburst hit parts of Mount Dora.  “I was so proud of all of them,” he says enthusiastically.  “They did a phenomenal job!  With only six people on shift they helped extricate a lady trapped in her truck when a tree fell on it, dealt with live wires down, responded to two cars crushed by a tree, responded to a cardiac arrest, dealt with alarms that had to be checked at apartment complexed when lightning strikes were causing electricity to go out – and then helped to clear trees from the roadways. You cannot imagine how busy they were during that shift.”

Mount Dora Firefighter assisting with downed tree on July 13 following storm
Mount Dora Firefighter assisting with downed tree on July 13 following storm

But firefighters aren’t always responding to storms, fires and auto accidents.  So, what else is required?  Training – a lot of training.  Firefighters must have 100 hours of training every year in fire and medics are required to do 30 hours per year in medical training. The training is set to meet standards of the National Fire Protection Association – a nonprofit organization devoted to saving lives and reducing property loss.  There is even specific training that is done on the appropriate and safe use of power tools (chain saw, jaws of life, etc.).

A significant requirement is the multi-company training.  “We work together with the folks in our neighboring communities, to ensure that when we need to work together on a large fire event, each department is ready to collaborate and respond efficiently together.  Night training is also required, that presents different challenges.

“The men and the women of the Mount Dora Fire Department do a great job and are widely respected in our county,” Kerkhof says.  Though the Mount Dora Fire Department has three women among its ranks, minority hires are tough to come by, he says.  Kerkhof says he wishes he had a Spanish speaker among his ranks, but the one firefighter/paramedic who spoke Spanish that he did have on staff left for much higher pay and benefits to go to the Reedy Creek department near Disney.  “Language barriers can be a problem,” he acknowledges.  “Once, at an accident site, were working on a man who only spoke Creole.  Unbelievably, one of the police officers from Mount Dora who reported to the scene spoke Creole – that one was sheer luck,” he says.

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“I am just so proud of these people in this department. The citizens are well-served by their fire department.  Our medics have trained medics for Eustis and Tavares and we just wrapped up training six medics for Leesburg,”  says Kerkhof.  He says that the medical director for Lake Couty, Dr. Fitzpatrick, has asked Mount Dora to write a protocol on training medics based on their own field training officer program for medics, says Kerkhof.

“When I first became a firefighter in Miami 37 years ago,” says Kerkhof, “they asked me why I wanted to be a firefighter.  So, I told them, ‘My grandfather had an expression, jack of all trades, master of none.  But firefighting is so much more.  You have to become a jack of all trades and a master of many.’  And, there is still everyday, someone to help, something more to do, to achieve, to learn. You have to love this job.”

Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)