By James Hampton, M.D.
How many fire departments does one county need?
We now have nine fire departments in Collier County, one sheriff’s department, one Emergency Medical Services agency and a tiny, unnecessary EMS embedded in the North Naples Fire Department.
The nine separate fire departments’ budgets for the fiscal year 2013 are $71 million. The total salaries for the individual fire chiefs are $1,940.829 and their total benefits are $268,817 — for a total of over $2 million.
The EMS budget is $22 million for 2013, of which $10 million comes from transport revenues; it would be self-supporting if everyone paid their bills to EMS (about half do not).
The EMS medical director, Dr. Robert Tober, is now in contract negotiations with County Commissioner Georgia Hiller for his salary, and so is the assistant medical director. At present the director receives $110,000 with no benefits and pays the assistant director $36,000 out of his salary.
The fire chief of the North Naples Fire Department is the highest paid chief in the county at $148,000 plus $63,000 in benefits per year. The lowest paid fire chief is in Immokalee, a district which serves the largest area in the county, where the chief makes $96,370 plus $18,368 in benefits. The fire chief for Golden Gate and East Naples combined receives a total of $190,711 including benefits. East Naples and Golden Gate have engaged in the start of a consolidation. The news reports say it has been a big success so far. They are already saving money by combining tasks.
I have no idea as to why other fire department consolidations have not been seriously considered. As with most things, it probably comes down to money, control and turf. Could it be that the fire chiefs and others in command like their high salaries and benefits? Could it be that the fire commissioners all want to keep their jobs and benefits? Each fire department has a group of commissioners. Could it be that the unions fear a loss of jobs and large salaries? I doubt that answers can be obtained.
For many years there has been a big tug of war between the fire departments and EMS. I believe that the fire departments want to take control of EMS to help justify their budgets when their basic job should be fighting fires and supplying basic life support in helping the EMS. Basic life support is by far the most important action in saving lives — not advanced life support. I think it is time for us all to come to an agreement about who has what function. The deciding factor should be saving lives.
I believe that there are many economies to be had from consolidating all of the fire departments. Golden Gate and East Naples have made steps in that direction. The Naples Daily News reports that North Naples and the city of Naples are to have meetings about combining tasks, but the word consolidation has not been used.
To me there are possibly two tracks to full consolidation. One is for all of the fire commissioners to agree to consolidate. The other is a possible referendum. I am neither a politician or lawyer. I do think that it is obvious that there are major money savings that could be achieved with better coordination of both fire and medical services that would result in the best medics providing advanced medical care and the majority of fire medics providing initial — and critically important — initial basic life support medical care.