The Villages fire chief was disinvited to speak before a special committee in Sumter County aimed at addressing the ambulance crisis.
While he may have been rendered voiceless, plenty of residents rose up to speak to fill his slot.
Chief Edmund Cain of The Villages Public Safety Department had been invited to speak to the Ad Hoc Committee on Fire, EMS and Medical Transport which met Wednesday night at the Wildwood Community Center. He was later – apparently without explanation – pulled from the agenda.
Last month, Cain proposed creating an independent special fire district. He said the district would have authority to levy its own property taxes and impact fees instead of relying on county and Villages funding. He said creating the special district also would be effective to cope with the rapid growth of The Villages.
Had he been allowed to speak, Cain would have addressed an enormous crowd.
“I am very disappointed the chief was not allowed to speak,” said Charlene Hudoff of the Village of Pine Hills.
Since learning about the possibility that The Villages Public Safety Department could be merged with Sumter County Fire Rescue, she has tried to rally the Pine Hills Social Club into action.
“We can’t let this happen,” she said.
Villager Melody Searless works the Boone Gate for Community Watch. She feels a special kinship with Ladder 43 which works out of the Paradise Drive Fire Station on the Historic Side of The Villages.
“They do a great job. I am here to support them,” said the Village of Santo Domingo resident.
She was sporting a homemade lapel badge that proclaimed, “We Support Villages Fire Rescue.” She arrived early to secure a front row seat at the crowded meeting.
She was also unhappy that the fire chief had been pulled from the agenda.
The parking lot was overflowing at the Wildwood Community Center. Extra chairs had to be hauled in to support the standing-room-only crowd.
In a change of procedure, Committee Chairman David Bussone moved the public comment period to the top of the agenda. A long line of speakers formed behind the podium after his announcement.
“I don’t understand why The Villages Fire Department was swept into this issue in the first place. As I understand it, the contracted ambulance service was not meeting its commitment,” said Villager Len Hathaway.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said of The Villages fire department.
Scott Lee of the Village of Bonnybrook described losing his house in a fire.
“If it wasn’t for these guys in the yellow shirts, I might not be here tonight,” Lee said in reference to the firefighters wearing matching union T-shirts.
He wore one, too, in solidarity with the firefighters who saved his life.
Like Hathaway, Lee couldn’t grasp how the ambulance committee had run off course with a discussion of merging the two fire departments.
“I don’t know how all this got going, but if you’re going to get rid of (The Villages fire department), it’s craziness,” Lee said.
The ad hoc ambulance committee was formed due to a full-blown ambulance crisis in Sumter County, where patients have been left waiting for more than an hour for ambulance transport.
When a speaker asked why Chief Cain had been removed from the agenda, the audience booed, indicating their displeasure with that decision. Speakers aimed their anger at Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold and suggested he had deliberately muddied the issue. He had introduced a 10-point menu of options for the committee to consider, which included the idea of merging The Villages Public Safety Department and Sumter County Fire Rescue.
When a speaker suggested removing Arnold from his county administrator job, the crowd cheered.
Speakers said the most sensible approach to the ambulance crisis would be moving the ambulance service under the respective fire departments.
Committee member Gail Lazenby, a longtime member of The Villages Public Safety Department, said private provider American Medical Response has failed to live up to the needs of the residents. He said the “only” answer is to leave The Villages Public Safety Department and Sumter County Fire Rescue as they are and said they should pick up the ambulance service.
“Get (the ambulance service) out of the hands of a private entity,” Lazenby said.
However, committee member Leland Greek, a former Sumter County fire chief, argued in favor of a county-run ambulance component, rather than having each fire department try to operate its own ambulance service.
The committee voted 3-2 to have Sumter County create an ambulance transport service staffed with county employees.
The committee also voted 3-2 not to consolidate The Villages Public Safety Department and Sumter County Fire Rescue.
Those recommendations will be forwarded to the Sumter County Commission.