FORT MYERS - Lee County residents who are critically injured or ill will have to rely on out-of-town medical helicopter transports for six months or longer while the county's MEDSTAR operation is shut down.
Lee EMS officials suspended the medical helicopter service as of 7 a.m. Tuesday to revamp the program and pursue national accreditation, said Kim Dickerson, deputy director of public safety and EMS chief.
Four employees - three pilots and the director of flight operations - were let go.
The MEDSTAR system consists of one helicopter that is used at any given time and one helicopter that is a backup only.
Now, the county will rely on mutual aid arrangements with Collier County EMS, a private medical flight company in LaBelle and the Bayflite system in Tampa, which has a site in Sarasota, she said.
"The public should not have any concern," she said.
Collier EMS has one medical helicopter and will assist when it can but will be the resource of last resort for calls, said Margie Hapke, a county government spokeswoman.
"We have to keep our primary focus on Collier County residents and visitors," she said. "There are private sector companies that can do this."
Collier EMS wasn't notified ahead of time of Lee's plans and learned the same time as the media Tuesday about the program being taken out of service, Hapke said.
In the past, the two county medical helicopter programs have provided assistance to one another when one agency's helicopter is shut down for training or maintenance. Response times in those events vary based on the circumstances of the call and flight time to the receiving hospital.
When mutual aid is provided, the patient is billed directly for the service so no financial arrangement is necessary between the two counties.
Lee Memorial Health System officials are taking measures to adapt, hospitals spokeswoman Mary Briggs said. Lee Memorial operates four hospitals in Lee, including the trauma center at its downtown Lee Memorial campus. The trauma unit treats 2,200 patients a year.
"We want to reassure the public that the grounding of MEDSTAR operations does not create a serious danger to our patients," Briggs said in a statement. "This is unexpected news, but we're quickly implementing plans so patient care is not negatively impacted. Lee Memorial Health System works with several different emergency medical services and other ground and air transport is available for our patients when needed."
Lee's MEDSTAR handled 525 patient flights last year out of the 81,000 ground transport calls; the budget for flight operations is $3.3 million, Dickerson said.
Lee County commissioners were individually briefed last week by EMS/public safety staff of the plans to suspend operations to restructure and seek accreditation by the Commission of Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems.
"We decided this was the best thing to do for our program," Dickerson said, adding that job losses and loss of insurance among county residents has driven up the level of patients needing transports. "We see a lot of patients who are sicker than we typically were seeing."
Up to now, a MEDSTAR team has consisted of two paramedics and the pilot. The national accreditation requires having a critical care nurse, one paramedic and the pilot, she said.
"We felt it is a good opportunity to put that type of program in place," Dickerson said, adding that August and September are typically slower months.
"The staff is where we needed to make changes," she said, but added that the employees let go will have the chance to reapply for jobs under the new program.
Mac McAllister, one of MEDSTAR's pilots, said the county had an ulterior motive to replace the employees, who had complained of safety problems in the past. He said he was placed on leave this past April, after working for the county for 10 years, because he made complaints to the Federal Aviation Administration.
"This is an excuse to remove all the people who had identified the problems," he said. "We had brought our problems to upper management. Paramedics had issues with the medical configuration. The pilots had issues with the cockpit configuration. EMS managers have no business running aviation."
By the numbers
Lee's MEDSTAR handled 525 patient flights last year out of the 81,000 ground transport calls; the budget for flight operations is $3.3 million.
In August 2011 when MEDSTAR shut down for a safety review, Bayflite agreed to send one of its medical helicopters to be stationed in Lee, said John Wilson, director of public safety for Lee County.
Bayflite operates at Bayfront Medical Center in Tampa.
Bayflite is likely to help again, said Scott Wyant, Bayflite's program director.
"We're not exactly sure what it's going to look like this time around, but we remain committed to a partnership with Lee County's EMS system, working closely with them on short or long-term solutions," Wyant said.
Lee's MEDSTAR lost a helicopter in the early morning hours of Aug. 17, 2009, when a pilot with two medics aboard crashed in the water off North Captiva Island. All three survived. The pilot thought the autopilot was engaged when it wasn't, and the crew was not aware the helicopter was descending, according to investigative reports.
Gaining national accreditation could take six to nine months but the hope is to have it done earlier. Being accredited as a critical care program will bring a higher level of skill to the program.
Overall, EMS has seen a 16 percent increase in call volume for people needing transport to emergency rooms, Dickerson said.
Lee County Emergency Medical Services announced today that it will temporarily suspend its MEDSTAR flight operations to begin working toward national accreditation standards.
The service was suspended as of 7 a.m. today.
MEDSTAR operations are anticipated to resume within the next six to nine months, if not sooner, Lee EMS officials said.
"Helicopter service will remain available to the residents and visitors of Lee County," Lee County Public Safety Director John Wilson said in a prepared release. "We will rely on mutual aid support to assist us during this reconfiguration period. Safe operations are our No. 1 priority."
Lee EMS and Lee officials weren't immediately available to elaborate on the prepared statement, nor where the mutual aid will come from.
"LCEMS is committed to maintaining a standard of performance that reflects safe operations and competent, expert patient care," the prepared statement said.