Delray’s new Fire Chief is settling in and bringing stability to a department that has gone through a rough path of late.
Veteran Chief Neal DeJesus was hired and inherited a proud organization but one that was rife with issues ranging from equipment gaps, problems with facilities, an uncertain future serving Highland Beach, fraught labor negotiations to leadership questions and whether the department would even remain a part of the City of Delray Beach.
The department has been dealing with an array of issues since veteran Chief Kerry Koen retired in 2008.
Koen was a popular figure among the troops and enjoyed a strong relationship with union officials and top management throughout his tenure in Delray. He was replaced by David James, who came from Dade County, and had a rocky stint as chief marred by personal illness and long absences from the department. James was followed by Dani Connor, the department’s first female chief, who rose from the ranks but was dealt a difficult situation as City Commissioners twice considered merging the department with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, a prospect popular with many rank and file members but unpopular with many in the community.
Tight budgets, political uncertainty and a long and rancorous renewal of a 23 year relationship serving Highland Beach impacted Chief Connor’s term and she retired a few months back.
Enter Chief DeJesus, who brings 33 years of experience to the city. Recently, DeJesus briefed the Government Affairs Committee at the Delray Chamber on his early impressions and goals for the department. Here are some highlights:
DeJesus said he found that morale was low when he took the job. He says he sees improvement in morale but knows that he has to deliver in order to keep spirits up. That means moving fast on equipment and station upgrades and cultural changes.
“It’s critical that we have the right people in the right seats,” he said. “What’s impressive is that our department wants to be the best in the world”.
Call volume remains high and is climbing. Last year, the department responded to over 13,000 calls for service, this year’s volume is expected to climb past 15,000. A lot of the increase is driven by drug abuse, especially heroin which has reached crisis proportions.
DeJesus is working to right size the department’s staff, saying the department may be staffed for Delray, but not necessarily for the influx of people coming to Delray and calling 911, i.e. those with serious opiate and heroin addictions.
He’s moving forward with equipment purchases that will significantly improve capabilities and response times. Last year, the department had to call on outside agencies 221 times because emergency vehicles were out of service.
“Frankly, that’s embarrassing,” he says. “We didn’t plan well, we will now.”
New recruits are working their way through extensive training. DeJesus wants paramedic/firefighters not emergency medical technicians citing their level of training and value to a lifesaving service. He has requested 8 new firefighters/paramedics in the city’s new budget to be adopted this month.
He’s pleased to see the Highland Beach deal move forward saying it benefits Delray residents because significant call volume in southeast Delray is served by the Highland Beach station.
Plans are underway to replace Station 113 located on Linton Boulevard. This station has been the city’s busiest with 2,206 calls in 2014-15. A temporary structure will be proposed before a new site and station is eventually built, ideally in a location that improve response times to a very busy corridor.
Did you know?
The first piece of firefighting equipment in Delray arrived in 1919, a hand drawn hose cart. The downtown area had a water tower and a few fire hydrants to use for fire protection in those days. The cart, with several hundred feet of hose, was utilized as the firemen would respond on foot to the fire, dragging their hose cart and then hook up to the closest hydrant, using the pressure the water tower developed for their fire streams. The same year, the Department took delivery of their first motorized vehicle, a Brockway Torpedo and 1,000 feet of hose.