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Fire District Flips, Will Seek Bids on Copter

St. Lucie County Fire District officials changed their minds Wednesday and decided to seek proposals from any company willing to operate a helicopter for medical evacuations in St. Lucie County.

In July, they said they would waive the normal requirements to speed the process in hopes of having a new air ambulance by Oct. 1, when Sheriff Ken Mascara no longer will pay a share of the helicopter that the county and the fire district own jointly.

"We want a cleaner process so there will be no questions later about how the company was selected," Fire Chief Ron Parrish said. "Several companies are interested, and each has some suggestions on how to do it."

The process of advertising for proposals and evaluating them means the fire district may not have a new plan in operation Oct. 1, the start of a new budget year.

"Sheriff Mascara and I have worked it out so our helicopter can keep flying for a short time until a company is hired," Parrish said.

Parrish said he hopes to have proposals from the companies ready for the fire board to consider at its Sept. 19 meeting.

The county and fire district own the helicopter jointly, with the sheriff providing pilots and the district supplying paramedics to care for seriously injured patients being flown to a trauma center. In 2006, 231 trauma patients were flown from St. Lucie County.

County taxpayers pay for that service, but patients and insurance companies will be responsible for paying a private company. They have not determined any charges, such as a flat rate and a per-mile cost for patients. In Martin County, they charge trauma patients a $4,200 flat rate plus $87 a mile for the service.

In St. Lucie County, Sheriff Mascara pulled out of the joint operation effective Oct. 1 because of budget cuts resulting from the state legislature's tax reform package.

The fire district alone can't afford to operate the helicopter and hopes a private company will step in.

Parrish said he's talked with four companies, and others may submit proposals after the request is advertised in the next few days.

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