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FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 3, Number 30, July 24, 2006

Florida’s families and communities are safer because of men and women who accepted the challenge of more advanced training provided through the State Fire Marshal’s Office this past month.

The first program trained more than two dozen men and women and certified them to join methamphetamine (meth) lab regional response teams around the state.  That means they are able to help dismantle the toxic and deadly labs being found in homes, backyard sheds, vehicles, and hotel and motel rooms.  In a new national poll released last week, sheriffs in 48 percent of counties polled identified meth as their No. 1 drug problem.  After seeing an increase in meth lab fires and explosions here in Florida, I asked the State Fire Marshal’s Office to provide courses that would better prepare our state’s emergency responders to respond to this epidemic.  Our training, provided in partnership with the Multi-jurisdictional Counter-drug Task Force Training Center and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is considered the most current meth lab responder training available in the nation.

The second program, which wrapped up last week at the State Fire College in Ocala, provided ongoing, intensive training to responders who are members of Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces from around Florida.  The more than 300 hours of training ended with a final exam that had the students cutting through steel and concrete in a simulation of a collapsed apartment and parking garage.  The facilities at the fire college include the only simulator in the nation that provides real smoke and fire conditions, intended to give responders the best hands-on training possible. 

Florida’s emergency responders face real and serious threats every time they leave the police station or firehouse, and as State Fire Marshal I have taken very seriously my responsibility to ensure that they are as prepared as possible.    

-- Tom Gallagher


FAMILIES PREPARING FOR SCHOOL CAN SAVE MONEY ON NEEDED SUPPLIES

Families can save money on needed school supplies this week thanks to a Sales Tax Holiday approved by the Florida Legislature. State and local sales tax will not be collected on clothes, footwear, books and certain accessories selling for $50 or less, from Saturday, July 22 through midnight on Monday, July 30.  Certain school supplies selling for $10 or less are also tax-exempt during this period.

The sales tax holiday will save shoppers an estimated $32.1 million in state sales tax and an additional $7.2 million in local sales taxes. Sales tax holidays were held in 1998 through 2001 and again in 2004, 2005 and this year.

Businesses and shoppers with questions regarding the sales tax holiday can contact the Department of Revenue toll-free taxpayer assistance line at 1-800-352-3671 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays.  For a list of items exempt from state and local sales tax, visit www.myflorida.com/dor.


GALLAGHER ANNOUNCES ARRESTS OF TWO PUBLIC ADJUSTERS
IN $400,000 HURRICANE INSURANCE FRAUD CASE

MIAMI—Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, announced today the arrests of two licensed public adjusters who fraudulently collected more than $400,000 from two insurance companies by submitting bogus contractor agreements. The arrests were made by detectives in the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud.

“Insurance fraud leads to higher insurance premiums which hit every Floridian in the pocketbook,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department. “We will continue to follow every lead regarding possible fraudulent activity and send a strong message that such abuse of our citizens will not be tolerated.”

Jose Manuel Soler and Ariel L. Fernandez, of Coast to Coast Public Adjusters, allegedly submitted approximately 75 forged contractor agreements, resulting in an overpayment by Citizens Insurance of approximately $314,596.54. Detectives said an additional 29 such documents were submitted to the Tower Hill Group resulting in a loss of approximately $125,281.81.

Detectives said the forged contractor agreements were submitted in order to obtain an additional 20 percent of the estimated claim for overhead and profit. The fraudulent contractor agreements stemmed from real claims for water pipe damage. Following each storm in 2004 and 2005, Gallagher capped public adjusters fees that could be charged to storm victims and implemented a 14-day day period for victims to rescind public adjuster contracts without a penalty.

Both Soler and Fernandez surrendered on the charges Thursday and were incarcerated in the Miami-Dade County Jail. Each was charged with 104 counts of insurance fraud (third degree), 104 counts of grand theft (third degree) and one count of organized scheme to defraud (first degree) each. Bail was expected to be set at $1,050,000. Additional arrests are anticipated.

The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates fraud in all types of insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers’ compensation. To report information about this case or any other possible insurance fraud case, call the department’s Fraud Fighters hotline at 1-800-378-0445. A reward of up to $25,000 may be offered for information leading to a conviction.


‘FINAL EXAM’ FOR FLORIDA’S URBAN SEARCH AND RESCUE TASK FORCES
Training has been funded by $32 million in Homeland Security funds

Most tests involve paper, a pencil and maybe a calculator, but this one involved concrete, steel and human resolve.

On July 20, members of the Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Forces from Tampa Bay, Central Florida, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Volusia County completed intensive structural collapse training at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala. The "victims" and the scenario were props, but the work was all real, said Tom Gallagher, Florida’s state fire marshal.

“Florida has one of the most well-prepared response systems in the country,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Division of State Fire Marshal which provided the training. “We have ensured that all of our emergency responders get hands-on training so that they are as prepared as possible for any disaster here at home.”

The final exam had students cutting through poured concrete, concrete block and steel to rescue “victims” trapped in apartments and cars in a collapsed parking garage. The test wrapped up an 80-hour course that followed 264 hours of mechanical, trench, confined space and rope rescue training. Funding for the training and the facility comes from more than $32 million in U.S. homeland security funds that have been pumped into Florida and administered by the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The US&R training center at the State Fire College provides specialized and live-fire training and is the only "post-blast" collapse simulator in the United States providing fire and smoke conditions.

Since September 11, 2001, the number of US&R task forces in Florida has grown from two to nine. Those task forces are located in the Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida areas, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Central Florida (Orlando, Orange County, Seminole County) North Central Florida (Marion County, Alachua County, Gainesville, Ocala) and Volusia. Two FEMA US&R task forces are located in the Miami area, and the nine task forces comprise the Florida Urban Search and Rescue System.

More than $1 million in homeland security funds have been spent to train and equip each of seven state task forces, including providing each with a tractor-trailer response truck stocked with tools and equipment to respond to a wide range of emergencies. In addition, local governments have been supported with some of the personnel costs incurred during training.

The two FEMA task forces in Florida responded following the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon, and all nine provided critical assistance during the past two hurricane seasons both in Florida and Mississippi.

Homeland security funds have also helped establish and equip 50 technical rescue teams and supplement the 28 existing regional hazardous materials teams, as well as provide almost 300,000 hours of training to nearly 1,700 first responders serving on these teams.

“Because of the work of these men and women and their commitment to protect Florida’s citizens,” Gallagher said, “our state is better prepared and equipped to respond to any threat, protecting our families and making our communities safer.”


BFAI, FDLE, MCTFT TEAM UP TO CERTIFY METH LAB RESPONDERS

During the week of  July 10 through July 14 the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Multi-jurisdictional Counter-drug Task Force Training Center at the St. Petersburg College jointly sponsored a clan lab certification course with the assistance of the Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosive Analysis.

This important training and certification is critical to the state in its continuing effort to combat the clandestine drug lab problem that has grown in Florida over past years.  Funding to the class was provided by the sponsoring agencies as well as regional domestic security funds for both the Northwest and Northeast Domestic Security Regional Task Forces. 

State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher recognized the need for this important training as part of legislative initiatives passed during the 2006 legislative session and made a priority by the State Fire Marshal.  The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations has responded to some fifty of these labs that have exploded or ignited, an event common to some 30% of the labs around the nation.

The intensive training was attended by first responders from law enforcement agencies throughout Florida.   Each of the attendees returned to their community certified to respond to reported drug labs and capable to work was part of the state’s strategy in dismantling the labs in as safe a manner as possible. 

The specialized training was provided by subject matter experts from the nationally recognized California Department of Justice.  California was one of the first states to be faced with large numbers of drugs labs.  

Fire Marshal Gallagher stated, “I would like to commend the men and women who attended this training to become certified in responding to drug labs in our state.  The service they provide to their communities every day is complicated by the dangers these labs pose and their willingness to respond and dismantle these dangerous labs before they explode or ignite is indeed commendable and deserving of our praise. 

BFAI, BFFEA, FDLE and MCTFT will be hosting a second training class to certify drug lab responders in October.


 

STATEWIDE LAW ENFORCEMENT RADIO SYSTEM FULLY IMPLEMENTED

The recent full implementation of the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS) gives more than 6,500 law enforcement officers the ability to communicate with their peers throughout the state using a central radio system. With this new system, officers from various state agencies are able to effectively communicate with one another on one system.

By providing a single system, Florida is able to provide law enforcement officers responding to an emergency with a more efficient means of communications and the ability to talk to one another in real time.

"In the event of a disaster, this new communications ability will save lives and property," said State Fire Marshal Gallagher. "As first responders in emergency situations, the coordination by radio among state agencies will make a qualitative difference."


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