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Ambulance services under MCFR's roof

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By Lee Helscel

Now we know the direction the county’s ambulance service will take. But the avenues mapped have yet to be traveled.

At Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting the vote was for merging Emergency Medical Services Alliance personnel with county fire services. When Barbara Fitos spoke at the Jan. 14 State Road 200 Coalition meeting, she addressed the benefits of such a marriage, and three other commissioners were apparently of similar mind.

The unusual partnership that formed EMSA will dissolve by the end of September. The five-year union of Marion County, the city of Ocala, Munroe Regional Medical Center, and Ocala Regional Medical Center can no longer afford to operate together, and the contract will not be renewed.

For more than half of 2007, a task force of five community members studied the situation and gave commissioners three options to consider in December: combine ambulance operations with fire rescue, keep as a separate department, or use a private service.

With pending cutbacks in state and county spending, added expense is a major concern with the second and third choices. Under the umbrella of Marion County Fire Rescue, duplication of some support staff can be avoided, and private ambulances in Florida have a track record of not being cost effective.

From the logistical side of today’s emergency service reality, it makes sense to have medical technicians and firefighters under one roof. County service call statistics show that 80 percent of all fire rescue responses are for medical reasons – only one-fifth are fire-related.

During the everyday workings of responding to calls for aid, a fire truck is usually the first dispatched to a home medical emergency, vehicle accident, or a host of other unpredictable human crises. For that reason, and the fact that medical aid is often needed at house- vehicle- and woods fires, MCFR requires all firefighters to also be trained emergency medical technicians or paramedics.

Firefighters are already spending the lion’s share of their time treating injuries and illness and they often have to wait for an ambulance to transport the patients to a hospital emergency room. There are 27 strategically placed fire stations in Marion County from which ambulances can be dispatched and possibly improve response times.

One of the negatives of the plan is that the county may lose some of its emergency medical personnel. Because of MCFR’s firefighter requirement, some EMTs and paramedics may not want, or be fit enough, to cross-train and may have to be replaced.

But the Board of County Commissioners is committed to making the change – after all the state holds the county responsible for ambulance service to its residents. It will provide 9-1-1 service and ambulance transport countywide and to all the incorporated areas, including Ocala.

The interesting part will be getting approval of each small city to approve a countywide Municipal Service Taxing Unit to fund the ambulance operation. Commissioners have also requested the Ocala City Council to create its own MSTU to pay the city’s share of ambulance service to its residents.

All this and more has to be up and running before Sept. 30. County Administrator Pat Howard has been directed to form a transition team and Commissioner Fitos was appointed as liaison for the team. They will explore financial, administrative, operational, and human resources issues and report to the Commission.

For the past five years, EMSA has provided reliable ambulance service to Marion County residents. The way the service is structured is destined to change – but MCFR officials are optimistic they can improve on what has been built, and save taxpayer money.

It will help if all parties involved share that optimism and partner to make it the seamless transition the County Commission hopes for. The safety and well-being of all its residents depends on it.