Debate Stirs Over Florida City’s Proposed Response Change

In this corner, the city staff and fire chief, with a raft of technical questions and gloomy scenarios.

And in this corner, the county’s foremost self-made expert on matters of emergency services coordination, ably but not unequivocally supported by the Collier County Medical Society.

That’s the fight that’s shaping up Wednesday over whether Naples should take part in a new emergency dispatch system that would send the closest appropriate unit to medical calls regardless of political boundaries.

It would mean paramedics on a North Naples Fire Department truck, for example, might respond to a medical call in Naples or a Naples firetruck might be sent to East Naples.

GPS transponders in more than 450 emergency vehicles countywide would allow a computer to find and send the closest unit in a process called Computer Assisted Dispatch, or CAD.

Sitting as ringside judges in the contest will be Naples’ mayor and City Council members, who will decide whether to join the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, county ambulance service, Marco Island police and fire and seven independent fire districts already committed to participating in CAD and closest-unit response.

The Sheriff’s Office is spearheading the initiative, installing a new dispatch system to replace the one it now operates for itself, EMS and the fire departments.

The city staff, heavyweights including City Manager Bill Moss and Fire Chief Steve McInerny, are recommending a split decision. Their advice to the council is to join the CAD system, allowing the sheriff’s new computer to keep track of its police and fire vehicles while city employees dispatch them from the city’s own call center.

But they recommend against participating in closest-unit response, saying the logistical and technical questions are too many and worrying the net result might be a lower level of service for city residents.

That has raised the fighting ire of Marvin Easton, a proponent of closest-unit response. Easton has been lobbying tirelessly for its adoption by the city.

Easton has recruited the Collier County Medical Society, whose president, Dr. Mitchell Zeitler, has penned a letter on behalf of the group.

“If feasible for the city, we recommend implementing the “˜Closest Appropriate Available Unit

Response’ by use of the new CAD system,” Zeitler wrote.

That “if feasible” could be a sticking point.

A lengthy report attached to Wednesday’s City Council agenda shows city staff are not convinced closest-unit response is feasible.

Among the potential drawbacks:

Units from other jurisdictions might not be familiar with city streets and buildings, meaning any time saved en route would be negated.

And if city units are called to emergencies just outside the city, it could slow the response to a concurrent emergency in the heart of the city.

“While some citizens may benefit by implementation of “˜closest unit response,’ there is no compelling evidence that the majority of citizens of Naples will benefit. In fact, the overall emergency response capabilities will diminish for most citizens,” the staff report states.

The staff report envisions a situation in which neighboring departments will come into the city more often than city units will go into them. That could lead to those neighboring departments seeking money from Naples to cover the costs.

“If it is later determined that compensation is to be paid for an imbalance of calls, are these funds better utilized to staff and equip the Naples Fire-Rescue Department?” the staff report asks.

That line, Easton says, is telling.

He believes the reluctance to participate in closest-unit response is rooted in a desire to add men and equipment to the Naples Fire Department instead.

In his proposed budget, to be discussed Monday by the council, McInerny asks for one new firefighter.

Less than 2 percent of the calls the fire department responds to are about fires, and most of those are out before firefighters arrive.

The biggest chunk of the roughly 5,000 calls the department gets each year are medical calls. Why add firefighters and resist a plan to get people to medical emergencies quicker, Easton wonders.

“I don’t know how the addition of more staff will reduce the time it takes to get from a fire station to a critical medical call, but maybe we will be enlightened on this on (Wednesday),” Easton wrote in one of dozens of emails he has written on the topic.

The staff recommendation suggests waiting until after closest-unit response is working in other parts of the county and then join if everything is going well.

Easton said that’s backward. The city should move forward now, to get in on the initial planning and programming of the system, which is to go operational at the start of 2016. If things aren’t working out, it can back out before the system is turned on.

In addition to the Medical Society, Easton has asked the Chamber of Commerce and various city property owners associations to weigh in Monday.

The chamber’s public policy committee hasn’t taken a formal position, but former NCH administrator Ed Morton, a member of the committee, said he intends to speak in favor of closest-unit response.

He understands the city may want more data, but it’s just common sense that having closer units respond will save time and, in turn, lives.

“Why would you not want to get emergency services to those in need faster?” Morton asked.

Just a week ago, Morton said, he was at a Naples restaurant when a woman died of a heart attack. A police officer with an AED device was on the scene quickly, but it took several minutes for Naples firefighters/medics to arrive.

The restaurant was probably closer to a North Naples fire station than a Naples station, he said.

“That puts a human face on it,” he said of the experience.

Easton said he doesn’t plan to speak at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I’m not going to say a word. I’ve inundated them with my thoughts.”

Instead, he hopes for a big turnout of heavy hitters like Morton and Zeitler to make the case.

Regardless, he knows convincing a majority of council members of the efficacy of closest-unit response will be a fight.

“There is only so much we can do when more staff and more equipment is the objective,” he said.

Connect with Brent Batten at or or on Twitter@NDN_Brent Batten.

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