Ending a decade of private ambulance service in Sumter County, commissioners voted Tuesday night to create two public ambulance services under the control of each of the county’s fire departments.
The change will take effect in about a year after the county’s contract with American Medical Response (AMR), a large national company, expires on Sept. 30, 2022.
The unanimous decision came after an outpouring of support for the plan by an overflow crowd at the Everglades Recreation Center.
AMR came under fire earlier this year for long delays of up to an hour or more in responding to some emergency calls. Company officials blamed the problem on staffing shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic.
After listening to more than two hours of public comments, commissioners were united in supporting the will of the crowd, which included a large number of firefighters.
Commissioner Oren Miller said he rode along on 19 ambulance calls to learn more about the system. He said he witnessed an ambulance crew save a person’s life.
“At one point during an afternoon ride-along, there were four calls for advanced life support and no ambulances to respond, Miller said.
“There is no master plan in Sumter County and that is the problem,” he said. “The shortage of ambulances did not start with the pandemic, but it was exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Commissioner Doug Gilpin apologized to the crowd that it took so long to come to a solution of the ambulance problem.
“It has created much uncertainty,” he said. “The county and government should stay out of it and let the fire departments do what they need to do.”
County Chairman Garry Breeden defended the process. An ad hoc committee studied the problem over the summer and recommended a single county-run ambulance service. Breeden said they “did a good job” and “put in the time.”
Commissioner Craig Estep said he toured fire stations and was impressed by the professionalism while Commissioner Gary Search said from the thousands of emails he received, putting ambulances under fire department control clearly is the popular choice of residents.
During the public comments, Kathy Patrick told an emotional story of trying to get her son Declan, 7, transported by ambulance to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where he has been treated for a genetic disease.
Her son was struggling so she called 911.
She said the ambulance arrived after 42 minutes and then a dispatcher argued with her that Gainesville was too far to transport. Declan eventually was taken by air, but Patrick said it took a total of more than 1 ½ hours for him finally to reach the hospital.
“If I can’t take care of my son and all I can do is call 911, what am I supposed to do?” she asked. “What if my son had passed away on me?”
David Bussone and Gail Lazenby, two members of the ad hoc committee, endorsed the fire department plan although a majority of the committee had voted differently.
Bussone said the International Association of Fire Chiefs supported ambulance services run by fire departments due to the advantages of coordination.
“These things, if done properly, prevent medical errors and harm to patients,” he said.
Lazenby said both local fire departments have provided excellent service for years.
“There was no question in my mind that the private ambulance service had to go,” he said. “I want to see the transport put into each department.”
Susan Ridgeway of the Village of Lake Deaton was critical of the county’s management of AMR’s contract including a period when Assistant County Administrator Stephen Kennedy supervised the contract while his wife, Christine, ran the local AMR operation.
Don Brozick, a supervisor with Community Development District 11 said he has seen slow ambulance responses for softball injuries.
“When I look at the vote you have in front of you today, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Let them (the fire departments) do their jobs.”
Villages Fire Chief Edmund Cain said fire department based ambulance services also are supported by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and that the average response time for his department is less than six minutes.
Mary Jane Frye said AMR has had plenty of time to prove itself, adding that hiring the company could have been “a simple mistake.”
“A life and death situation needs to be at the hospital, not at a the end of a wristwatch waiting for an ambulance,” said Donald Wiley.
Stewart Eubanks, local union president for AMR employees, said the company is working to solve its delay problems and recently hired 34 new staff members
“I can only offer an apology for the past and a promise for the future,” he said.