Holding a to-go coffee cup and a disposable plate with two toasted bagel halves, Lee County Paramedic Randy Brown maneuvered the breakfast bar at the La Quinta Inn and Suites in Bonita Springs.
Brown shared small talk with some people he’s become familiar with during the two months his EMS station has been based at the hotel.
“Y’all have a good day,” Brown told them before walking back to EMS 37, a first floor room near a side entrance a few feet away from the station ambulance.
At the end of October, Lee County moved three EMS ambulances and their corresponding crews out of Bonita Springs Fire District stations and into hotels along the city’s U.S. 41 commercial corridor.
JEMS Bonita Springs EMS Dispute Coverage
The county’s departure came after the fire district started charging Lee $16,666.67 a month for space at Bonita firehouses, ending a decades old handshake agreement between the two agencies that allowed Lee EMS to stay rent-free.
Benjamin Abes, deputy director of Lee County EMS Operations, said crews have done short stints at hotels before — when a fire station is being remodeled or updated, for example — but months-long stays are new territory.
So far, the uncommon arrangement has saved Lee taxpayers money and improved ambulance response times, county officials said.
“There were a lot of questions and unknowns about how this would work,” Abes said.
Linda Mulch, La Quinta’s general manager, said none of her guests have complained about EMS 37 or the ambulance parked outside of the hotel.
“We basically don’t even know that they’re here,” Mulch said. “(The EMTs and Paramedics are) the best guests we ever had.”
Home Sweet Home
Sean Powell and Michael Musacchio sat in plump, dark blue recliners on a Thursday day in mid-December. A flat-screen TV was tuned to the History Channel.
The room smelled of smoked brisket — a homemade meal Powell, an EMT, brought with him that day.
Working out of a hotel is the same as working out of a fire station, they said, but there are no “fire guys.”
“You still have a job to do. You still go on calls,” Powell said.
Powell and Musacchio, a paramedic, were at EMS 6, which used to be housed at the main firehouse on Bonita Grande Drive but is now 4.4 miles west at the Hampton Inn near U.S. 41 and Bonita Beach Road.
EMS 37 moved 1 1/2 miles southeast of its former fire station on Mango Drive to the La Quinta Inn and Suites behind Mel’s Diner on U.S. 41. EMS 13 moved 2 1/2 miles south of its old station on U.S. 41 South to Homewood Suites near the Highland Woods Golf and Country Club.
Though the county said these locations are temporary, EMS ambulances and their crews could be in the Bonita Springs hotels for six months or longer.
The county’s public safety division took care of the logistics. Each EMS hotel room the county chose is close to exits that lead to the ambulances outside.
EMS 37 is based out of the smallest hotel room because it runs 12-hour shifts, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EMS 13, a 24-hour station, ended up with a suite that includes a living room and a small kitchen.
For EMS 6, also a 24-hour station, Lee County is renting two connected rooms. One has beds. The other was modified — with the hotel’s blessing — to create a lounge space. A headboard remains against a wall, but two county-owned recliners stand in place of the mattress.
Brown, who’s worked for Lee EMS for more than 20 years, said he has the same accommodations at the La Quinta that he had in the firehouse, with some perks — breakfast and housekeeping.
EMS 37 is a standard hotel room, with two beds and a bathroom. Black and white beach photographs hang on one of the walls. The carpeting is zippy, covered in abstract swirls.
Two desks pushed side-by-side are the most noticeable change to the room. One has a PC punching in and out of shifts, completing skills training and other administrative work. The second has a docking station for the crew’s “toughbook,” a laptop they take with them on the ambulance.
There are radio battery chargers on shelves near the bathroom. The county set up its own wireless connection for security and performance purposes. Most of what crews need to treat patients is in the ambulance.
Outside of the hotel rooms, EMS has tried to blend in with the other guests, Abes said.
Each crew has an aerial map of their hotel with a red box over it that designates “no siren zones,” areas where ambulance sirens and air horns are not allowed.
For a while, the county barred its EMS employees from continental breakfasts, but changed its policy after hoteliers invited them, Abes said. EMTs and paramedics can use some hotel amenities, such as the fitness rooms, but the county prohibits them from laying poolside.
“That’s where we draw the line,” Abes said.
Lines drawn over rent are not dividing the Lee EMS road crews and their Bonita Springs Fire District counterparts, county EMTs and paramedics told the Daily News.
Powell and Musacchio said they visit the old firehouse often. That night, they planned to stop by and eat chili cheese dogs with the Bonita firefighters.
“We have no ill feelings,” Musacchio said.
‘We took our toys and left’
Lee County and the Bonita fire district have been at odds for at least two years.
The fire district wants to run four of its own 24-hour transport ambulances, and has twice applied for a certificate of public convenience and necessity — or COPCN. Twice Lee County said no.
Lee County moved out of the Bonita Springs fire stations soon after the district started charging rent.
“We took our toys and left, basically,” said Rob Farmer, director of Lee County Public Safety, which oversees EMS.
In April, the fire district filed to enter conflict resolution procedures with the county to resolve the COPCN matter, but a tentative agreement fell apart this month.
There is one more mediation meeting scheduled in January. If those talks fail, then the fire district could move forward with its lawsuit.
The fire district did not begin charging the county rent to get it to approve the COPCN, but the whole issue would be resolved if Bonita Springs had its own ambulances, Chief Joseph Daigle said.
“The whole issue goes away. It’s very simple,” Daigle said.
Lee County has taken the stance that the COPCN and the rent charges are two separate issues, Farmer said.
“I’m not going to change my answer on (the COPCN) just so I don’t have to pay rent,” he said.
Lee County would have had to pay the Bonita Springs Fire District about $200,000 annually to keep EMS at the firehouses, roughly $27 per square foot for rent. Daigle called it “market price.”
The Bonita Springs Fire District, which is independent from the city, asked Lee County for rent to offset the costs the district incurs for housing the crews, Daigle said.
“(Lee EMS has) been residing free of charge. In essence paying no fees, no utilities,” Daigle said. “I wouldn’t want to give up that deal either.”
Lee EMS is not the first in the industry to use hotels for operations, Farmer said. A Lake County, Fla. fire station has been headquartered at a hotel for about five years now, he pointed out.
“This is not some harebrained, crazy idea we came up with,” Farmer said.
The county estimates it will cost $110,116 to keep its three stations in the hotels for a year, almost $90,000 less than it would have cost to cohabitate with the fire district.
Although it’s still too early to know what this has done for public safety, Lee EMS said ambulance mean average response times in Bonita Springs are about a minute better now than they were this time last year.
Daigle agreed the county’s response times have probably improved along the U.S. 41 corridor, but he said it’s taking Lee EMS ambulances longer to get to residential communities, particularly in the eastern part of the fire district.
“Medical emergencies happen in residential areas,” Daigle said. “You would think the people would want EMS services closer to home.”
As county officials look for permanent locations, including renting commercial space or building stand-alone stations, some business and property owners in the area have already started to contact them, Abes said.
Right now, county and Bonita Springs Fire District leaders are not negotiating a way to put Lee EMS crews back in the firehouses.
“I don’t know if they’re looking at other places. I don’t know how long they are going to stay at the hotels,” Daigle said. “I don’t know what their goal is at this point.”