Fla. chief pushing for fire department to take over ambulance service

This is the third time in 15 years that the Venice Fire Department has sought to take over ambulance service within the city

By Earle Kimel
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

VENICE, Fla. — When a call for emergency medical service is placed within the city, the Venice Fire Department arrives before Sarasota County ambulances 66 percent of the time — with an average response time of 4 minutes, 15 seconds.

Typically, that's 3 minutes, 7 seconds before county EMS personnel — trained to administer advanced life saving procedures ranging from starting an IV to tracheal intubation to help with breathing — arrive.

As part of a proposal to improve the quality of medical care provided by first responders, Venice Fire Chief Shawn Carvey wants the fire department to take over EMS service within the city from Sarasota County.

That plan will be presented to the Venice City Council at a workshop Friday at 8:30 a.m. in the community room at Venice City Hall, 401 W. Venice Ave.

This is the third time in 15 years that the Venice Fire Department has sought to take over ambulance service within the city. In 2003, it was proposed by then-chief Mike Johnson and in 2013 by then-chief James Warman.

Venice has also considered consolidating its fire department with Sarasota County, but talks broke down in April 2016, when the two governments could not agree on the value of the city's assets.

Mike Rafferty, coordinator of Venice Tax Watch — an informal group of residents that has been reviewing city expenditures — has been an outspoken advocate of resuming consolidation talks. When the city approved its 2018-19 fiscal year budget last September, he urged the council to re-examine its interest in taking over emergency services and host a referendum on whether the fire department should be consolidated with Sarasota County.

In addition to Carvey's proposal, council members will review a study from the Holdsworth Group on the viability of the city taking over EMS services.

Call volume in Venice, which has a median age of 69, is high partly because of the number of seniors as well as a concentration of skilled nursing and assisted living facilities.

The ambulance stationed at Venice Fire Station No. 2, at Grove Street just north of Venice Avenue, is the second busiest rescue unit in Sarasota County.

The Holdsworth Group studied the operation of the Sarasota County EMS system within city limits between Jan. 1, 2017 and Aug. 30, 2018. Technically, the consultant was looking for ways to enhance the EMS system within the city as well as discuss the feasibility of the Venice Fire Department taking over ambulance services within the city.

In 2017, county ambulances were dispatched to 5,652 EMS calls in the city of Venice, or an average of 15.48 per day, according to Holdsworth.

Data from 2018, collected through June 30, suggested a 2.2 percent increase in calls.

While the city of Sarasota consolidated its fire department with the county, Longboat Key and North Port both have their own fire departments and ambulance services.

Sarasota County operates ambulance services out of the city's three fire stations.

The county taxes property at a rate of .66 mills — one mill is a $1 per $1,000 in taxable value — for its EMS system. This year, Venice residents paid about $2.4 million toward the system, while next year the projected tax is $2.5 million.

In addition, fees charged to the consumer and typically paid by their insurance or Medicare and Medicaid, account for another $1.55 million.

While consultant Bob Holdsworth, president of The Holdsworth Group, agrees with Carvey's conclusion that the city could benefit from operating its own ambulance service, his study offers two separate options:

  • Work with Sarasota County to improve the response time of its ambulance service within the city to meet the goal of 90 percent of responses occurring within eight minutes of a 911 call; and upgrade training and staffing of engines so they carry qualified paramedics who are able to perform advanced life support tasks. Because fire engines typically respond to calls sooner, this is projected to cut response time of ALS qualified personnel to four minutes or less. At least 12 firefighters would have to be trained and ALS equipment purchased. In turn, that would have to be subsidized by a decrease in the ad valorem rate paid by city residents to fund the Sarasota County EMS system.
  • Add and staff three ambulances to the city and increase training of personnel on three engines to reach ALS/paramedic level. This would require the hiring of 15 new paramedics, nine emergency medical technicians and one battalion chief. That is essentially Carvey's proposal and would be phased in over three years. As each city rescue unit goes online, the city would retain one-third of the ad valorem taxes city residents pay to the county that pays for ambulance service. When the city ultimately operates the system, it would be funded by roughly $2.5 million in property taxes and almost $1.55 million in billing revenue for the ambulance service.

In his report, Carvey noted that if the city takes over the ambulance service, it could institute an EMS impact fee on new construction to pay for the cost of expanding the service similar to the fees it started in 2017 for police and fire services.

Copyright 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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