Guest column: Jim Burke: EMERGENCY SERVICES – THE FUTURE

By Jim Burke

Pelican Bay

Commissioner, North Naples Fire & Rescue District

Marvin Easton, in his Oct. 11 guest commentary, struck at the core of the challenge facing those of us responsible for the effective and financially efficient delivery of emergency (fire, rescue, medical) services.

Easton reminds us that IBM, for whom he worked, changed its business model and prospered; Kodak did not change its model and filed for bankruptcy.

That is an analogy worthy of serious attention, and discussion, as it relates to emergency services within Collier County

Today’s fire departments possess 21st century equipment, technology and personnel. With that said I can attest that fire departments within Collier County are organized similar to old-fashioned fire departments, with an organizational model that is over 100 years old and designed to fight fires.

I cite this because it is no secret that over the past 45 years fire departments have become, first and foremost, the primary providers of emergency medical services — a transition dictated by a dramatic decline in structure fires and a need to remain relevant in a changing world.

Within Collier County less that one half of one per cent of 911 calls to which fire departments respond are for structure fires. Over 80 per cent are medical and rescue calls. In fact a leading 911 call is to assist people who have fallen and can’t get up.

If we were starting from scratch would we structure a 21st century model around the rare task of fighting fires? I think not. Yet “the model” persists, demanding big trucks and lots of people to man those trucks.

The limitations imposed by this ancient model are more apparent today due to the extended economic downturn which has resulted in declining property values and ad valorem tax revenues. It is estimated that most fire districts will not see 2007-level ad valorem tax revenues until 2020.

It must be understood, however, that the long-term economic decline coupled with loss of ad valorem tax revenues has played a major role in the consolidation of the East and Golden Gate fire districts. As the service and financial benefits to be realized by that consolidation become apparent it should entice other fire districts to seriously consider joining the consolidation movement. That is a positive development that is long overdue and speaks well for the future.

With solid, positive developments under way the time is right to begin discussing the 100-year-old model that is designed to fight fires. Considerations that would be integral to such discussions are as follows:

Why have fire departments, with over 96 per cent of their calls being non-fire, remained fire-based?

Recognition that fire departments are the key providers of emergency medical services and are well-suited to the job.

Would a single-source, independent, first-response organization for fire, medical and rescue services, with medical transport to hospitals — all under a common command — provide more effective and financially efficient service? (It works in New York, Washington, Columbus and elsewhere.)

Over 71 per cent of the population of Florida is served by organizations fitting that description in Miami, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, for example.

What are the alternatives to fire departments over-deploying multiple gas-guzzling, expensive, high-maintenance firefighting apparatus in response to non-life-threatening medical emergencies?

Explore the mismatch between services needed and services provided.

I am convinced that our goal must be to get the right people with the right skills to the right place at the right time. That, unfortunately, is not consistently happening now and that is unconscionable. We have the resources consisting of dedicated, skilled, well-trained personnel combined with 21st century equipment and technology. It is the model within which we deploy these resources that holds us back.

As Marvin Easton explained, IBM changed its model and prospered. Eastman Kodak did not, and where is it today?

The opinions expressed above are mine and not, necessarily, those of my fellow commissioners.

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