I-TEAM: Police & fire rescue crashes costing taxpayers millions

Crashes involving JSO, JFRD, Jacksonville city vehicles cost $8.5M over 5 years

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Is it the cost of doing business or a price tag that’s becoming painful?

Jacksonville leaders are mulling over the financial impact of crashes involving city vehicles. Data shows in 2018 alone, the crashes cost the city more than $1.6 million.

The I-TEAM found, on average, a city employee in a city-owned vehicle is involved in a wreck once every day-and-a-half.

Public servants respond to emergencies all day every day, covering the more than 800 square miles that make up Jacksonville. Records obtained by the I-TEAM show they don’t always make it there, as the vehicles are damaged in dozens of traffic wrecks every year.

Data from the city documents the crashes over the past five years. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office was involved in the most wrecks. Vehicles owned by the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department were involved in the second-highest number of wrecks.

Dozens of crashes involving other city vehicles, ranging from code enforcement to parks and recreation to garbage collection, are also included in the city’s tab.

Rear-ending and backing into other cars were the most common types of wrecks.

“One is too many, but with all those things couple together, I don’t think those number of crashes are that alarming,” said Steve Zona, president of Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police.

The I-TEAM showed the numbers to Zona, who pointed out that on any given day, there are 500 Jacksonville police officers on the road in high-stress situations.

“We are tasked with having to look for bad guys. We're tasked with, at times, running with blue lights and sirens. We are tasked with having to answer a radio driving to and from places,” Zona said.

The costs range from repairs bills to medical bills.

In all, the city was on the hook for more than $8.5 million in five years. On average, that’s more than $1.5 million a year.

“It is a lot of money,” said Scott Wilson, the incoming Jacksonville City Council president. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Wilson, who has worked with the city since 1988, said this plays into his budget when he takes over as council president in June.

“When you first take a look at these numbers, they are high, they’re very concerning. But I also understand that first responders are in sometimes critical situations and they have to make split-second decisions,” Wilson said.

He said he was going to discuss the situation with the sheriff and fire chief.

“Training might be an option,” Wilson said. “Provide further training to ensure these operators are using best practices.”

Tom Francis, a spokesman for Jacksonville Fire and Rescue, provided a statement:

“The professional men and women of the JFRD spend every single day of the year working hard to make our city safer, including how vehicles and personnel are moved around our capacious city of over 800 square miles. We train and retrain for emergency vehicle operations (commonly referred to as ‘EVOC’) every year with the goal of keeping both our personnel and the people we serve safe from harm.

Furthermore, each and every accident is subject to extreme scrutiny and individually reviewed to determine the cause while simultaneously examined to identify the need for any applicable operator/driver improvement. In addition it should be emphasized how the cost analysis per year can be deceptive: for example if the other, non-rescue vehicle involved in an accident is determined to be at fault, then naturally some of the costs could be ostensibly recouped.”

Officer Melissa Bujeda, a spokeswoman for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, also provided a written response to News4Jax:

“The unfortunate fact is that given the vast number of vehicles owned by the city are assigned to JSO’s fleet, it is not surprising the percentages of crashes involving JSO vehicles would be higher than other departments. The costs associated with crashes vary from incident to incident, and subsequently from year to year. These costs would depend not only on the number of crashes but more importantly, the severity of those crashes. Recruits receive defensive driving training while going through basic training to receive their certification through the State of Florida, as well as upon being hired with JSO before entering the Field Training Officer program. This training is also supplemented throughout the officer’s career during annual in-service training.

With the understanding that our vehicles are being utilized not only 24 hours a day but the requirements placed on an officer’s response to a myriad of situations, crashes may be more likely to occur than the average citizen traversing to and from work daily. Crashes that do occur, and being at no fault to the officer/employee – will offer no further repercussions to the officer. However, those crashes investigated and found to have been caused by an officer or employee would typically require future driver training or remedial driving for the officer.”

No one in the Mayor’s Office was available for comment Wednesday.

About the Author:

Vic Micolucci

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 9 a.m. weekday newscast and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.