Thirty Naples city firefighters decided this week to pull out of a voluntary cross-training program with Collier County EMS, saying the program is no longer beneficial.
While city officials say public safety is not at risk, some feel the decision shows an unwillingness on the part of the firefighters to cooperate in providing certain public safety services. It also comes at a time when tensions are running high between the city and the firefighters union — the two sides recently reached an impasse with contract negotiations.
"The whole game has changed for me as it related to how I see the fire department and the firefighters' choice not to do their job," said Naples Vice Mayor Gary Price, who has acted as a liaison to City Council on issues of public safety for the past year. He said he's disappointed the firefighters chose to stop participating in a program.
The program staffed one city firefighter on a county EMS vehicle and one county EMS worker on a city fire truck during each shift. It also certified two city fire apparatuses to provide advanced life support instead of basic life support. Advance life support vehicles carry more drugs, according to city officials.
"It's not like this is a big, huge, county-wide thing," Price said. "It's two vehicles and two people per shift. From a city perspective ... the level of safety is still excellent."
But in an email to council, City Manager Bill Moss said the city's advanced life support vehicles may be reduced to only offering basic life support if the swap agreement is broken. Contract language states that if the city's participation begins to adversely affect patient care, the advanced life support vehicles can be decertified, Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny said.
"Today they're still operating as (advanced life support) units and I don't see that changing in the short term," McInerny said. "But as more and more members continue to voice that they no longer wish to participate, that will adversely affect the program."
Moss said not all city firefighters have participated in the voluntary program, but those who do earn an 11 percent pay incentive each time they ride a county EMS vehicle. As of Friday, 19 out of the 49 firefighters were still participating in the program.
Among those who dropped out was Lt. Adam Nadelman, the union representative for Naples Local 2174. He wrote in a letter announcing his decision that the program had "reached a point where it will not advance our efforts."
"The (Advanced Life Support) Swap Program in its current form was set up as a temporary step to ultimately allow us to provide some type of sustained ALS service," he wrote. "These programs were never intended to be a permanent solution."
Nadelman declined an interview Friday, saying he had been asked by city staff not to talk to media while on duty.
Moss said some officials felt the program did little to benefit city firefighters. Contract negotiations have reached an impasse, creating additional tension between firefighters and the city, he said.
McInerny said he planned to work with county officials, including interim EMS Chief Walter Kopka, on how to continue providing the same level of service to the county.
"To be fair, there have been frustrations with this program for a long time," McInerny said. "This decision (to drop out) is just extremely bad timing."
Kopka said the program was operating as usual on the county's end Friday. There are about six county workers who volunteer in the Naples swap program, he said, and he could not remember a time when one dropped out.
"We are dedicated to taking care of the citizens in the city and county," he said. "If we need to look at operational issues with Naples, we'll be glad to do that."