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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Island often left without EMS ambulance, critical care service

Islanders may be in more danger of dying from an accident or medical emergency than they think.

The ambulance that is located at the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District station in Holmes Beach is licensed and controlled by Manatee County Emergency Medical Services to provide level one critical care, but is often unavailable when WMFR units respond to an Island emergency.

The fire district does have trained personnel to deal with critical care, said WMFR Chief Andy Price, "but without authorization from Manatee County to perform level-one emergency care (Advanced Life Support), we can't give that care in an emergency. We can only give basic emergency treatment."

Case in point: A man drowned off Coquina Beach a few years ago while WMFR paramedics stood helplessly by, waiting for the EMS ambulance which had been called off-Island on another emergency.

WMFR paramedics knew what to do, but by state law they were prohibited from giving ALS, and didn't have the needed equipment anyway.

The EMS ambulance arrived 18 minutes after WMFR units did, too late to save the man's life.

"Would it have made a difference if we could have provided that care with the right equipment?" asked Price. "We'll never know, but I hope we're never in that situation again."

You could call it a page from Ripley's "Believe it or Not."

Price said WMFR has six trained paramedics that are qualified to give level-one service under state law, but can't give that care without a license from the county.

The county controls level-one service through the EMS program, and could give the WMFR and other fire districts a license to provide that care, claimed Price, but a legal opinion by the county attorney says the county doesn't have that authority.

Price wonders why Polk, Marion and Lee counties, among others, have the legal framework for licensing firemen trained as paramedics, but Manatee doesn't.

"It's being done there and it's not illegal," he observed.

With more and more people living "out east" in Manatee County, and more and more emergency calls to the east, Price worries that the 14 EMS ambulances are not enough for the more than 280,000 people in Manatee County.

And 14 available units for the county doesn't seem enough for Island needs.

The EMS unit in Holmes Beach is often called off-Island and there are times when no unit is available for an Island emergency.

"Last week, we had a call on the Island and the nearest unit was in Ellenton," said Price. "It took them about 15 minutes to get here."

In fact, units of the WMFR responded to eight calls for emergency service last week, and on four of those calls, the EMS ambulance was unavailable.

"We always respond, and we can give primary care, including defibrillation, but we're not allowed to give ALS and we aren't allowed ALS equipment.

"We can only operate at the emergency medical technician level," observed Price. "It's the difference between what an LPN and an RN can do.

"We've been asking the county for years to correct this problem. Allow us to provide ALS and we'll get there within minutes with the personnel and equipment."

Price noted that the Longboat Key Fire Department personnel are allowed by the county to provide ALS and there is a private ambulance service in the county with such authorization.

"I just hope we can solve this problem before someone actually dies because we couldn't provide the necessary level of service," he said.

Meetings are scheduled in February with County Administrator Ernie Padgett and the county legal staff to solve the dilemma, however.

"We want to know how come all these other counties can provide the service, but we can't. Are they all operating outside the law?" wondered Price.

"We don't mind backing up EMS when they are there, and giving primary care when they're not," he claimed, "but let's do something."

Before somebody dies needlessly, he might have added.