Collier County (Fla.) Chooses Interim EMS Chief

The EMS chief spot has proven to be a political hot seat through the years, as public clashes between Collier's fire districts & county EMS have become the norm


Aaron Hale, Naples Daily News | | Monday, August 15, 2011

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. -- Collier County EMS is looking toward the next chapter as it seeks to replace outgoing Chief Jeff Page.

The EMS chief spot has proven to be a political hot seat through the years, as public clashes between Collier's fire districts and county EMS have become the norm.

In addition to overseeing 200 employees and a $20 million budget, the EMS chief also must cooperate with the county's nine fire departments and the Collier County Sheriff's Office to coordinate what's proven a tumultuous emergency medical response system.

Page, who worked for Collier EMS since it was established in 1981 and was named chief in 2001, has been a controversial public figure at times -- both within his department and with other agencies. Page announced his retirement in late July.

Collier County posted the position of EMS chief on its website Friday, the same day it introduced an interim chief to replace Page, who retires Aug. 26.

Walter Kopka, a Collier County EMS battalion chief, will serve as a successor to Page until a new chief is hired. Kopka also was appointed to the job of director of EMS operations - the No. 2 position in the department.

Page and Kopka join a recent carousel of Collier emergency services leaders either leaving their roles or joining the leadership ranks. East Naples and Immokalee fire districts could name new chiefs of their own next week after Doug Dyer retired in February as East Naples chief and Immokalee Chief Scott Birge was fired by his commissioners in May.

Collier County Manager Leo Ochs said the next EMS chief should be able to work with all leaders in the emergency services community.

"I'm not looking for someone to handle politics," Ochs said. "I'm looking for someone who can collaborate with other chiefs."

Ochs added the new EMS chief will work closely with Emergency Medical Director Dr. Robert Tober in maintaining public safety standards in the county.

Interim Chief Kopka is a 25-year Collier EMS veteran who has climbed the agency ladder as an emergency medical technician (EMT), paramedic, flight medic captain and training captain. His promotion to director of operations, however, will be his first administrative role.

"He's been through virtually every position in the department," Page said. "He's a very competent guy. I just think he was a great choice."

In the 1990s, Kopka helped successfully lobby the state Legislature to classify EMTs and paramedics as "special risk" employees in retirement benefits.

Kopka said he likely will put his name in the hat for the permanent chief's position as well, but even as director of operations, he will make a big impact on the system.

Collier fire chiefs familiar with Kopka praised his accomplishments.

Golden Gate Fire Chief Robert Metzger called Kopka "a dedicated EMS professional." North Naples Deputy Chief Jorge Aguilera said Kopka has "a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge in EMS."

However, they declined to predict how well Kopka would work with the fire departments, which often have complained about Page's collaboration with them.

Both Page and his predecessor, Diane Flagg, consistently clashed with fire chiefs from the independent fire district over control of patient care in Collier County. As some fire departments have sought a larger role in emergency medical care, Tober and EMS officials have pushed to maintain control of the system.

Page filed multiple complaints against Collier fire agencies and firefighters to the Florida Bureau of Emergency Medical Services based on allegations of fraud and paramedic test cheating. None of the complaints resulted in citations for the bureau.

Page also faced criticism within his own department. In June, a jury awarded Collier County EMS Medflight pilot Mark Holmes $70,000 in a lawsuit against county government. Holmes convinced the jury that Page retaliated against him for blowing the whistle on safety and management issues within the department.

County leaders are looking for both internal and external candidates to fill the job.

The position is posted on the county's website, and will be circulated through EMS and fire chiefs associations.

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