LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Emergency Management Services employees are resigning and many are getting behind Lee County Commissioner Brian Bigelow's request to investigate the county manager and reinstate the medical flight ambulatory service, Medstar.
"You are being told half-truths and misinformation when it comes to the replacement service that is covering Medstar's absence," said Jason Ausman, an EMS employ who resigned on Monday. "Except Bigelow, the rest of you feel there is no sense of urgency to reinstate the service."
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Despite failing to garner commission support to investigate Karen Hawes, the county manager, on Tuesday, the board unanimously agreed to find out if charter and Sunshine Laws were violated when Hawes suspended the county's Medstar program last month.
"Time is lost and lives may be lost in the process and further undermine the authority of the board," Bigelow said. "Our power has been usurped. There's no way to deny that the power that rests with us by the charter, determined by the people, has been hijacked by the county manager."
Bigelow sent an email to Michael Hunt, county attorney, last Thursday asking if Hawes violated the charter when she suspended the Medstar program without the board's consent. Bigelow further added Sunshine Laws may have been violated with the program being suspended without it first going to a public hearing.
"I cannot stand by and watch as an inept county management allows for the day when a resident's blood is on my hands because I did not act today to restore Medstar and replace the county manager," Bigelow said.
Hunt has no more than two weeks to answer Bigelow's concerns. Once the responses are completed, depending on their outcome, Commissioner Frank Mann is willing to stand with Bigelow's request to investigate Hawes.
The board did not address Bigelow's request to reinstate Medstar services, pending the outcome of Hunt's investigation.
Misty Turley, a Medstar advocate, supported Bigelow's effort to reinstate Medstar services. Turley said the "citizens want" EMS administrators put on leave for misrepresentation. She also requested a forensic audit of all computer software, emails and human resources documents and a thorough look into the billing practices.
The discussion into Medstar comes at a time when an interlocal agreement between Collier County and Lee County needed to be spruced and put into writing. It passed 4-1 with Bigelow dissenting.
In a rare appearance at commission, Deputy Public Safety Director Kim Dickerson said the agreement with Collier County is for both air and ground transport. She added the agreement is typically verbal.
Collier County EMS Chief Walter Kopka said the deal is primarily for ground transport services since an interlocal agreement isn't required for air transport. Kopka added the Collier County commissioners approved the agreement months ago.
Bigelow also was concerned that the agreement calls for helicopter ambulatory services, but with Medstar being suspended, the county would be liable for services they can't provide because of a reliance on backup services.
Hall amended the motion to include a letter to Collier County stating Medstar is currently suspended and Lee County is receiving backup services from Aeromed, based in Tampa.
"It doesn't impact them at all," Dickerson said about relying on backup services in Lee County and the agreement for shared services in Collier County. "We are still able to provide service to the community. Yes, Aeromed will go to Collier County, the service is still available."
Kopka said the Lee County helicopter was Collier County's backup, should there be a need. But when Lee County suspended its services and Aeromed moved one of their five helicopters from LaBelle to Fort Myers, Kopka said they met with them, too.
A crash last Friday morning on U.S. 41 in Estero severely injuring two men highlighted the need for backup service in Lee County.
Estero firefighters responding to the scene determined they needed helicopter ambulatory services. When Aeromed was called, it couldn't come because it was being serviced. Rather than Collier County's helicopter service being dispatched, a Sarasota-based chopper was requested. The victims were transported by ambulance to the hospital.
"Since the Medstar shutdown, Aeromed has not transported a single patient from a Lee County ambulance despite three requests for service," Ausman said. "Out of the seven times they have been requested for interfacility transfers they have turned down two of them."
Dickerson said after the crash on Friday that EMS guidelines require flight service only if ground transport exceeds 30 minutes. The men were transferred within 28 minutes. However, those guidelines were increased from 20 minutes this year.
"If the Commissioners don't realize the potential for other members of the public to possibly lose their lives if our more expedient transport systems are not restored, then we are not taking our obligations of public safety as our top priority," Bigelow said, "As we should."
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