The Villages Fire Chief Edmund Cain proposed creation of an independent district with taxing authority to provide fire protection and ambulance services to the community.
Cain introduced the plan at a meeting Wednesday of the Ad Hoc Fire, EMS and Medical Transport Committee. He was invited to provide more details at the next committee meeting on Aug. 4.
Committee members also heard from Dr. Desmond Fitzpatrick of the University of Florida (UF) Health, medical director of Sumter County EMS, who discussed a plan for UF Health to provide financial and contractual oversight of ambulance services.
Several weeks ago, Cain said he favors keeping Sumter County’s two separate fire departments and having them operate ambulance services.
The service currently is provided by American Medical Response (AMR), a national private company. The company has come under fire this year for long ambulance response delays of up to an hour or more. Sumter County commissioners appointed the committee to study the issue this summer and recommend improvements for the service.
Cain said operating fire and ambulance services under an independent special district would provide greater uniformity of services and financing authority. State legislative approval would be required for the special district, which would be empowered to levy property taxes and impact fees.
Although the district would operate outside of county control, the fire chief said it still would need permission from the counties of Sumter, Marion and Lake.
An independent authority operates fire services in St. Lucie County. In Miami-Dade County, the services are offered through a dependent district under county control.
Cain’s proposal is based on a study that began last fall by J. Angle Group of options for restructuring the governance and financing of The Villages Public Safety Department.
The study concluded that creation of an independent district is the best way to handle the pressures of rapid growth.
Another plan for reorganizing services is being developed by the international office of the firefighters’ union.
Committee members heard Fitzpatrick describe a plan for greater oversight of ambulance services by UF Health, which also operates The Villages and Leesburg hospitals. Under the plan, Sumter County could continue to use a private ambulance service.
Fitzpatrick highlighted nurse navigator, tele-medicine and another program for Medicare recipients that allow ambulance providers to be reimbursed for finding alternative treatment options other than transport. The medical director said these programs are developing slowly.
Committee member Gail Lazenby said a lot of public education will be needed because when people call 911, they expect responders to show up.
“I don’t see them wanting to talk to somebody on the phone,” he said.
Dr. Alison Leung, deputy county medical director and a UF clinical assistant professor, said patients can refuse nurse navigator services and demand transport. Leung also said she reviewed some delayed ambulance responses and found none that were life-threatening.
Fitzpatrick also advocated greater use of quick response vehicles that would roam neighborhoods and arrive first on scene at many emergencies. The Villages Fire Department currently operates nine of these vehicles.
Committee members also began discussing options for improving the services.
Jeffrey Bogue told Fitzpatrick that his presentation was “smoke and mirrors” because it focused on experimental programs.
Richard Kleindienst said he favors consolidating the two county departments, but Lazenby opposed it because he said he doesn’t want to see either department’s services become “diluted.”
Former Sumter County fire chief Leland Greek said the county wasn’t in a position to provide ambulance services when AMR’s predecessor Rural Metro was hired a decade ago.
“Maybe what we’ve lacked over the years was a level of oversight,” he said. “There’s going to be challenges moving ahead no matter what system is put in place.”
Committee members agreed that if AMR loses its contract, no employees should lose their jobs. They would be hired by whatever entity takes over the ambulance service.