Apopka adds fire stations to improve response times, save lives

The last time Apopka built a fire station, fewer than 20,000 people lived in Orange County’s second-largest city and no toll roads led into the bedroom community. That was 1997.

Apopka is now home to nearly 50,000 residents who commute on three high-speed highways, but the city is still covered by just four fire stations. Though Apopka claims to be the indoor foliage capital of the world, many nurseries have given way to new residential neighborhoods as the city strives to reinvent itself.

On Wednesday, the city plans to break ground on a new firehouse — one of two in the works — to reduce the time it takes firefighters and paramedics to get to emergency calls on toll roads ringing the city and to areas in the city’s farthest northwest and southwestern reaches, where the population is booming.

“I think we’re just beginning to see growth mushroom there,” Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer said, listing half a dozen new neighborhoods.

The new fire stations will cost about $1.6 million each.

The first, on Jason Dwelley Parkway near the Northwest Recreation Complex, should open late this year or early next, Apopka Fire Chief Chuck Carnesale said.

The new site will help speed up response times in neighborhoods north of Ponkan Road, all the way to the Lake County line.

“We need to be able to get to those people who are in cardiac arrest, the pool drownings … in four minutes or less, for those people to have any chance of survival,” said Carnesale, 47, who has witnessed Apopka’s growth over a 34-year fire career that began when he was a “student explorer” at age 13. “Anything north of Ponkan Road, we’re over five, six minutes now.”

The standard in the U.S. is about eight minutes, though some urban departments take longer to wheel through traffic, according to national fire experts.

Travel times to emergencies for Orange County Fire Rescue units have increased steadily since 2010 because of rapid growth and rising call volume. Unit travel time is averaging about nine minutes, 30 seconds this year.

OCFR’s response time averaged six minutes, 59 seconds per medical call and seven minutes, eight seconds per fire run a year ago, agency spokeswoman Kat Kennedy said.

“If we were at four minutes response time, we would be trying for three,” Orange County Fire Chief Otto Drozd III said.

Apopka’s far north neighborhoods have been served by crews stationed at a rebuilt firehouse on Welch Road, more than three miles away.

“We have schools out there now,” Carnesale said of Wolf Lake Elementary and Wolf Lake Middle, both on Ponkan Road, with a combined enrollment of 2,600 students. “It’s important to get there as quickly as we can.”

Carnesale, promoted to chief in June 2016, said Orange County Public Schools also is planning to open another elementary school in 2021 at the nearby crossroads of Jason Dwelley Parkway and Kelly Park Road. That area would be served by the new station.

Apopka’s fire/rescue crews responded to 6,989 calls in 2016, up from 5,127 in 2010. Four of every five callers need emergency medical service, the chief said.

Firefighters handled 5,404 EMS calls last year.

The department’s call load through July this year is up 18 percent over the same period last year.

Often, they are the first responders to high-speed, serious-injury crashes on State Road 429 and its spurs, which are traveled daily by thousands of commuters.

Firefighters in the new station on Jason Dwelley also will be able to respond more quickly to big communities such as Rock Springs Ridge because the city is extending Brush Drive, now just a stub, to Rolling Hills Lane.

Without the new $400,000 shortcut, the fire/rescue crews in the new station would face a six-minute drive from Jason Dwelley to Ponkan Road to Rock Springs Road.

While a concern to the fire chief, the Apopka department’s response time is several minutes faster than that of Orange County Fire Rescue, which handles far more calls but has been over seven minutes since 2010, according to county statistics.

The city’s second new station, funded in the upcoming budget,

will be built near Harmon and Ocoee-Apopka roads where Adventist Health Systems is wrapping up construction on a new 120-bed Florida Hospital Apopka.

Kilsheimer said the city will work with Adventist to convert a construction trailer on the hospital property into temporary quarters for nine firefighters and a fire engine until the city builds the permanent firehouse nearby.

The mayor said the city will closely monitor demands on its fire/rescue services to determine if a station is also needed in the future near the newly opened Kelly Park Road interchange of the Wekiva Parkway, the toll road being built around metro Orlando. A planned development at Kelly Park is expected to bring new homes, businesses and perhaps a community college.

“We’re going to be responding to that stretch of the Wekiva Parkway to any incident that occurs out there,” Kilsheimer said.

Apopka last built a new fire station in 1997 after annexing more than 1,000 acres west of the city, including an industrial complex south of U.S. Highway 441. That station is at 2750 W. Orange Ave.

Stephen Hudak can be reached at shudak@orlandosentinel.com or on Twitter @Bearlando.