Two meetings to explore Collier fire district consolidation, ambulance transport

Who: Collier County Commission, Collier Emergency Medical Services, officials with Collier’s independent and municipal fire departments

What: Emergency Medical Services and fire services workshop

When: 9 a.m. Thursday, April 26

Where: North Collier Regional Park Exhibit Hall, 1500 Livingston Road

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— A pair of meetings this week could change the way Collier County's independent and municipal fire districts operate.

Or it could be déjà vu all over again.

Collier County commissioners are set to meet Thursday to discuss emergency medical and fire services, and hot button issues like consolidation and ambulance transport will be on the agenda. The meeting is scheduled for the day after a joint meeting of East Naples, North Naples and Golden Gate fire commissions, where the consolidation of functions through local agreements is expected to be discussed.

But while the meetings appear to be covering similar ground, many of the stakeholders seem to have different hopes for what the result will be.

Some Collier commissioners want a fire district consolidation plan. Coastal fire chiefs want the go-ahead to transport patients within their jurisdictional boundaries. And everyone involved wants what is best for Collier County residents.

"I'm willing to listen to anything," Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta said. "But the truth of the matter is, my concern is countywide. We don't talk about fragmenting the county (Emergency Medical Services) or the Sheriff's Office because it works on a county level."

Commissioners in December agreed to hold a workshop between themselves, EMS officials and Naples, Marco Island and North Naples fire chiefs. While the workshop originally was meant to look at potentially issuing a certificate of public convenience and necessity to the three fire departments for pre-hospital emergency medical transport, it has since morphed into a meeting that looks at consolidation, fire plan review and field inspections.

Still, coastal chiefs are holding out hope that their concept for pre-hospital emergency medical transport will be welcomed with open arms.

That concept has the three departments merging with ambulance services already operating in their boundaries. The concept keeps the same number of ambulances in Naples and North Naples, but adds one to Marco Island. While ambulances and crews now work for the county's EMS system, the proposal would have them working for the fire departments instead. Supporters say the concept wouldn't only be more efficient but would also save money in the long run.

"It's an idea of being able to see improvements and expansion of EMS to use existing resources and funding," said Jorge Aguilera, deputy chief of medical services and community relations for the North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District.

"It's a different way to provide emergency medical services, and it goes on the footprint of the blue ribbon committee recommendations," he said, referring to a task force that gave a report on emergency services to commissioners more than a year ago.

Under the coastal chiefs' proposal, Collier County EMS would continue to provide service for the rest of unincorporated Collier as it does now.

It may be a different way to provide services, but it's one that likely will be met with opposition. Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said the proposal achieves the goals of Naples, Marco Island and North Naples "without regard for the overall interests of Collier County."

"It still leaves the system fragmented," he said. "The emergency medical service should not be fragmented. End of story."

Coastal chiefs may be looking to leave Thursday's meeting with support for their concept, but Coyle has a different goal. He wants fire districts to leave the meeting with a commitment to consolidate.

"It is essential we have a consolidation of fire districts ... in Collier County," he said.

This isn't the first time consolidation has come up, said Burt Saunders, a former Collier County commissioner and a local attorney who represents North Naples and Marco Island in their bid for pre-hospital emergency transports.

"It's been debated for 20 years. When I was on commission it was being debated," he said. "It may happen. It may not happen. But the division of EMS and transport, that does not slow down or stop consolidation efforts."

Coyle's hopes of a consolidation commitment may be closer to reality than ever before. One day before commissioners are slated to discuss consolidation, commissioners with three of Collier County's largest independent fire districts are expected to discuss whether there are any merits to a consolidation of functions.

A functional consolidation means each fire department would act as its own district, but functions like administration or fire prevention would be handled by one fire district through an agreement. Golden Gate fire Commissioner Kevin Gerrity said he plans to propose that North Naples handles administrative services, East Naples handles facility and equipment maintenance and Golden Gate handles fire prevention responsibilities.

While it's just a coincidence the joint fire commission meeting is scheduled just one day before the Collier County Commission workshop, North Naples fire Commissioner Jim Burke said he's hopeful the three independent fire districts will be able to hammer out a proposal and show county commissioners they're already looking into some type of consolidation. Still, Burke said, he's doubtful Thursday's meeting will lead to any grand revelations.

"I don't have a lot of hope for it," he said. "I don't know why consolidation was thrown in ... until someone from the state steps in and tells (us) something differently, all of it is in the hands of the fire commissioners."

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