Misery rarely has company along remote stretches of Alligator Alley.
When cars crash and tractor-trailers overturn, the closest aid can be as far as 51 miles away in Everglades City, where firefighters with the Ochopee Fire district cover a stretch of Interstate 75 between mile marker 83 and the Broward County line.
The calls are frequent, and each takes a chunk of Ochopee Fire Chief Alan McLaughlin’s 12-firefighter staff away from Everglades City. “Today, every time we go to I-75, 50 percent of the firefighting (staff) is reduced in my district,” McLaughlin said.
In the coming years, responses could be nearer the scene and less burdensome for Ochopee. A provision within a transportation bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott designates funding for a new Ochopee EMS and fire station by a rest stop at mile marker 63.
The move should be critical for accident victims, explained Dan Summers, Collier’s Bureau of Emergency Services director.
“The sooner we can get to you and stabilize you, we can add time to that golden hour and improve transport,” Summers said.
The funding designation, inserted into the 37-page legislation, directs excess tolls from both ends of the Alley — money left over after other toll-linked projects are reimbursed — to the station.
The change comes at a cost to the South Florida Water Management District, which was granted the excess tolls in 1996, after an agreement with the federal government and the Florida Department of Transportation.
Since 1997, funds have been deposited in the Everglades Trust Fund to be used for restoration of Florida Bay and the Everglades. After an initial transfer of $17 million in 1997, the trust fund has received $26,125,000 over 13 fiscal years, according to a 2011 financial report, or an average of $2,009,615 annually.
The new station will be placed in the footprint of a rest stop being renovated by FDOT at mile marker 63. Tentative plans call for a 2-bay station, with utility hookups provided by FDOT. Collier County will connect its utilities with the station in the future, according to a county press release.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office installed a similar station in 2005, between mile markers 34 and 35. The agency uses no tolls but pays for the full bill from its budget, according to FDOT.
Ochopee is a dependent fire district within Collier County.
Summers envisions a station with a minimum of three firefighter/paramedics staffing the station at all hours. The apparatus would likely be suited for typical calls and could include a kind of hybrid truck that can both fight fire and transport patients toward incoming Collier ambulances.
Startup costs are penciled at $3.1 million, with an annual budget of $1.2 million, much of it in salaries for the firefighters, who will be hired in addition to Ochopee’s current staff.
Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta said many of the details remain to be ironed out, including whether bonds would be issued for the project. He hopes to have a station staffed in a year to a year and a half.
Talk of building a station has been in the air for as long as Summers can remember. Coletta said he’s sought funding for the past three or four years.
When efforts to convince FDOT officials failed in 2010, Coletta took the issue on his March lobbying trip to Tallahassee. He mentioned the project to Scott, and he pressed Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.
Haridopolos, in turn, worked with Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to have the language inserted.
“Given the distance between and the (current) servicing on the Alley, it was a bona fide case,” Richter said Friday.
After making it through the House, the bill landed on Scott’s desk, where Coletta feared it might suffer a line-item veto. Instead, the commissioner is enjoying a victory.
“I’m convinced that trip to Tallahassee was the catalyst that made the whole thing happen,” he said.
With a new station, more firefighters can stick closer to Everglades City, McLaughlin, the Ochopee chief, said. Dispatches to the interstate account for roughly 40 percent of Ochopee’s calls annually, according to Summers.
“It’s going to be a tremendous benefit to the district as a whole for those incidents,” said McLaughlin, “because there will be no impact now to those firefighting forces.”