NAPLES — Collier County leaders took just one break from their “bring home money” mantra during a joint meeting earlier this month with Southwest Florida legislative delegates.
It was to advocate for or against legislation that would enable independent fire districts to consolidate, and appoint their own medical directors.
The 2010 legislative session opens March 2, but House and Senate committees began meeting Oct. 5. Collier commissioners and some community leaders asked legislators to kill two proposed bills.
The bills would enable the five independent fire districts in Collier County to consolidate. One bill addresses urban fire districts and the other addresses rural fire districts.
Initiatives to consolidate fire districts in Collier County have also come with a desire by fire districts to appoint their own medical directors. The idea evolved after Collier Emergency Medical Services Medical Director Robert Tober began enforcing requirements for firefighters.
After believing that emergency responders for the fire districts were not using life saving drugs frequently enough to maintain a level of proficiency, Tober pulled some of the drugs from firefighters’ vehicles.
He forced firefighters to take medications’ protocol tests and then accused some of cheating to pass.
An investigation found no evidence of cheating by the firefighters.
Tober ultimately pulled certification for some firefighters because they did not fulfill requirements set for by EMS.
Neighborhood Health Clinic co-founder Nancy Lascheid, representing the Collier County Medical Society’s 530 physician members, said pre-hospital medical decisions “must remain under the vigilance of physicians and only physicians.”
“As those who are educated, trained and totally committed to health care in Collier County, we are strongly opposed to the legislative initiative being undertaken by the local fire departments,” she said.
North Naples Fire Commissioner Jim Burke said he was somewhat bewildered by opposition to the legislation, which originated with county commissioners.
“This cockamamie system we have in Collier County (has) 10 different (departments). It is outmoded, antiquated and inefficient financially,” Burke said.
Burke contended that 80 percent of the nation is served by a fire-based integrated fire-emergency medical service (EMS) system.
Productivity Committee member Janet Vasey said she doesn’t oppose consolidation.
Setting up separate EMS protocols is problematic, she said.
“When you look at providing the pre-hospital medical care, the really important part is getting the meds,” Vasey said. “If you’re going to be giving these life-saving meds, you have to give them over and over again (and) most are given in the ambulance going to the hospital.”
That’s why area physicians are concerned, Vasey said.
Friday, Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, said he would entirely support complete fire-rescue consolidation to eliminate duplicate services and positions and reduce costs for taxpayers. But the way the legislation was presented, Grady said he got the distinct impression that it is not about smart economics, implying there was more of a political bent.
For that reason, he needs to take a much closer look at the initiatives before making a decision to back them, he said.
Delegation chairman Matt Hudson, R-Naples, once served as a fire commissioner so knows the historical terrain, and he’s not entirely sure which way he will decide.
His initial reaction was to back away from the bills because the process didn’t include enough public input, or even a voter referendum, Hudson said Friday.
He’s grateful that fire district leaders took his words at the Oct. 14 meeting to heart and re-drafted the language to encourage more public input, and open up the changes to a voter referendum.
Tober’s absence from the session was noticeable and troubling, Hudson said.
Collier County Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala said she was troubled by the turn taken over consolidation talks.
“I’ve heard some accusations that the fire departments (were) trying to take over EMS,” Fiala said. The commission told fire districts that if they consolidate, they can take ambulance services, Fiala said.
“All of a sudden, fire departments were being accused of trying to take over EMS (and) we were the ones who asked them to do it,” Fiala said.