Members of the Lakeland Fire Department responding to a structure fire on July 19, 2023. A battalion chief's SUV is in the foreground. | Lakeland Fire Department

The Lakeland Professional Firefighters Local 4173 and the city are at odds over the purchase of approximately $250,000 worth of communications devices for firetrucks, with the union saying they are vital pieces of equipment and Fire Chief Doug Riley saying only battalion chief vehicles need them.

At issue are devices called in-vehicle repeaters, which enhance radio communication while firefighters are inside buildings. They cost between $20,000 to $30,000 per vehicle.

LFD has seven fire stations spread throughout the city limits. Two in-vehicle repeaters have already been ordered for two battalion chief vehicles, which are SUVs. A mobile repeater, which has been in use since 2021, will be utilized as a spare.

“The City of Lakeland has known commercial buildings where firefighters can’t communicate using their only communication method in a fire, which is a portable radio,” Lakeland Professional Firefighters Local 4173 President Shannon Turbeville wrote in a press release on Monday. “Therefore, the City of Lakeland expects its firefighters to enter dangerous environments without the ability to call for help until a Battalion Chief does finally arrive.”

Florida Statute 633.202 states that, with minimal exceptions, all new and existing buildings must meet the minimum radio signal strength requirements for public safety agency communications as provided in the Florida Fire Prevention Code by January 2025. Turbeville said this has been a requirement for years. As an alternative to the building owner installing a two-way radio communication enhancement system, the code allows for automatically activated, in-vehicle repeaters installed in firetrucks.

Turbeville said the current mobile repeater does not automatically activate and, because of that, it doesn’t meet current code.

Turbeville said this lack of required equipment negatively affected Lakeland firefighters at a large commercial warehouse on Aug. 28 as they were providing emergency care to a critically injured patient.  Turbeville said the firefighters were split up, and could not communicate.

“Sending your firefighters into a large commercial building knowing that they can’t at least call in help for the public or themselves, is unconscionable,” Turbeville said. “The portable radio is our only lifeline to the outside. For obvious reasons, we hope that management will re-evaluate their decision and promptly implement an effective and lawful solution.”

Riley said the safety of the public and LFD firefighters is always the department’s top priority.

“Any suggestion by the local firefighters’ union to the contrary is baseless and without merit,” said Riley, adding that the commercial warehouse fire incident “reported in (an) email to the City Manager on September 3, 2023, from Mr. Turbeville, from International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4173, was the first I heard of this issue. Public and firefighter safety was not in any way compromised.”

LFD said there are 12 known addresses in Lakeland that have been flagged as needing a repeater and a battalion chief is dispatched with a repeater to any calls to that address. Five of those addresses have been notified that an inspector has evaluated their building and been provided a list of deficiencies and recommend a course of action, such as testing, deploying a repeater, or requiring a radio signal strength system.

“Lakeland Fire personnel have been advised to report any deficiencies they experience with radio communications while in the field,” Riley said in an email. “We received nearly 28,000 calls for service in 2022, and, to the best of my knowledge, none of our personnel reported any difficulties with their radios while communicating from any business or building.”

Riley said LFD has evaluated approaches to overcome radio signal weaknesses and he has reached out to his colleagues throughout the state to learn about their best practices.

“Adding repeaters to every emergency response vehicle may have potential benefits. However, the repeaters are not a fix-all solution and do not guarantee adequate radio coverage in every building,” Riley said. “This would not be the most efficient, economical, or timely approach to the issue, as it would likely take more than a year to purchase, deliver, and install the units. For these reasons, I do not support adding additional repeaters, but do support using these existing assets in the appropriate manner to supplement our overall plan.”

Turbeville said he spoke with Florida Rep. Jennifer Canady, R-Lakeland, on Sept. 14 about obtaining funding through the state’s “Radio Signal Strength Bill,” which took effect on July 1. He said the measure could potentially cover all eight fire engines and two spare engines.

“It's my understanding that our legislature looks for ‘buy-in’ from the local jurisdiction, as well, especially if they have the dollars to fund public amenities,” Turbeville said. “I have not had any further discussion with the representative about an appropriation since my Sept. 14 meeting.  It seemed useless if the city would not offer support.”

Riley said the three repeaters are enough.

“We believe that the three repeaters are adequate to ensure public and firefighter safety,” Riley said. “However, we will continue to evaluate coverage and best practices to determine if additional repeaters are needed. At this time, it is premature to request state appropriations for any additional repeaters.”

The firefighters union and the city are currently in negotiations for an updated contract.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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