2018-03-01 / Spotlight News

Estero Fire Rescue continues its mission

By Cindy Dugan

Estero Fire Rescue Station 42 is one of four stations in Estero. Personnel include Lt. Tom Lentz, firefighters/paramedics Jerry Krohnfeldt, Fred Gonzalez and Cory Heller. Estero Fire Rescue Station 42 is one of four stations in Estero. Personnel include Lt. Tom Lentz, firefighters/paramedics Jerry Krohnfeldt, Fred Gonzalez and Cory Heller. Many may be surprised to learn that the fire department has been serving the Estero community since 1964, while a transformational change occurred in 1998. Estero Fire Rescue continues to honor its mission statement: Dedicated and Driven for Those We Serve."

The Estero fire department has met and overcome numerous challenges and experienced tremendous growth and achievements during its 54-year history. Prior to 1964, Lee County contracted with Fort Myers to provide fire protection to the Estero area.

Estero Precinct 12 Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 was created in 1964. When a new fire engine or other equipment was needed, the community hosted bake sales to help raise money.

In 1976, the state divided Lee County into official fire districts, including the Estero Fire Protection and Rescue Service District, a 56-square-mile area of southern Lee County. Three volunteer firefighters were hired to full-time positions in 1985.

By the mid-1990s, Estero Fire and Rescue employed 11 full-time firefighters, a training officer, a secretary and a fire chief, operating out of a single station on U.S. 41.

But problems were brewing in the department. Upon returning from a training exercise one evening in January 1997, the union firefighters discovered their employment had been terminated. A private company was hired to staff Estero Fire and Rescue, on the grounds that it would save the district money.

The private company’s tenure was brief, ending with an on-the-job casualty. The incident became front page news in Southwest Florida.

The private company was dismissed and the firefighters reinstated. At that point — 20 years ago — a new chief, Dennis Merrifield, was hired, and the department was renamed Estero Fire Rescue.

As the Estero area grew, three new fire stations were constructed and a new administration building was built adjacent to the fire station on Three Oaks Parkway.

Scott Vanderbrook joined EFR in 1998. He was appointed chief in 2008. Chief Vanderbrook began his career as a volunteer firefighter in Newark, N.Y., at the age of 18. “I was hooked,” he said.

Estero’s new chief then faced a challenge. “In 2008, we experienced a downturn in the economy. We streamlined our processes and increased the finances we had in reserves. We’ve worked hard to gain the community’s trust.”

“I enjoy the challenge of not knowing what you’re going to deal with each day — the unknown is exciting. That’s what motivates me to come to work. You don’t know whose life you’re going to make better,” he said.

Vanderbrook believes valuable lessons were learned from the department’s troubled times in the ’90s. “You don’t hire a private company to do a professional job — (its) employees were unfamiliar with the area, the equipment and were not trained. You need to have properly trained, qualified employees to do public safety.

“I’m very passionate and proud of this organization,” said Vanderbrook. “We have rebuilt an entire department from scratch. Most chiefs build only one station; We have four.”

Estero Fire Rescue currently has 72 employees working in the areas of operations, prevention and administration, with state-of-the-art vehicles equipped to deliver advanced life support. The four stations cover 56 square miles. Estero Fire Rescue is a governmental district separate from the village of Estero. According to the district’s 2018 budget, it is primarily funded by $14.5 million in property taxes.

Estero firefighter/paramedics received 5,100 calls in 2017. As is the case for most of Lee County, local fire and rescue companies respond in fire trucks to medical emergencies along with ambulances operated by Lee County government. With more numerous and closer equipment, fire truck response time is typically faster than ambulance response. Complementary response provides additional qualified personnel on the scene.

Despite the changes during the years, one thing remains the same for the firefighters: “The brotherhood, closeness and sense of family we have with our fellow firefighters,” said Lt. Schyler Smith, who has been with Estero Fire Rescue for more than 12 years. “We spend a third of our lives together.”

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