Bonita Springs fire officials aren't going down without a fight in their effort to provide their own ambulance service.
During a department meeting Monday night, the Bonita Springs fire board agreed to a previous request made by Lee County commissioners to hire an independent auditor to review both the overall cost of the project and the fire district's budget.
Board members voted 3-2 after almost an hour of debate. The board also voted 4-1 in favor of splitting the estimated $20,000 cost of the auditor, an issue that previously appeared to be a deal breaker.
"The request for the audit appears to be political tactic on the part of the county," said Bonita Springs Fire Commissioner Steve Lohan. "They think if we have to spend more money, we'll go away. But the people in this town want this very badly and we're not going to quit."
The Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District filed an application with Lee County in May 2010 for its own ambulance transport service. Fire officials believe they can provide a better service at less cost to taxpayers, but some county commissioners believe it would cost more.
Last month, Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah made a motion to move forward with a public hearing on the issue, which is part of the district's request for a certificate to operate an ambulance transport service.
The motion died without another commissioner seconding it. "We've invested three years and hundreds of hours and we wouldn't go down this road if we did not feel it made sense to do this," Lohan said. "This isn't just a game where we're trying to win something. We're trying to provide a better service."
The plan is for the fire department to provide four of its own 24-hour ambulances. The department says it would incur the cost within its current budget.
Lee County EMS currently provides the district two 24-hour ambulances and one 12-hour ambulance. "One issue is that they (Lee County EMS) don't provide two ambulances here in Bonita Springs. They have two ambulances stationed here, but the ambulances go wherever the demand is," said Bonita Springs Fire Chief P.H. Kinsey Jr. "The ambulances run all over the county. Two and a half ambulances just aren't enough."
Both Lee County and the fire district have engineered studies on the issue, and their figures don't match. Lohan said he believes that if an "independent auditor with an unbiased view" looks at the cost, it will be much closer to the fire district's numbers. "Anybody can look at the numbers and see that you don't need a forensic inquiry. It's fifth grade math," Lohan said. "We never had a chance to challenge the numbers that were presented in the public arena. They were so far skewed. In my opinion, a forensic auditor will look at this and put it to rest once and for all."
With the proposed new service, Kinsey said the department's cross-trained firefighters, who often respond first and provide advanced life support treatment, would simply take the extra step of transporting patients to the hospital. "This is not a knock on Lee County's EMTs. It is not a matter of quality. It's a matter of quantity," he said. "Statistically, we get there quicker. And right now, there are two transfers of care. We are there anyway, so it's just a way of cutting out the middleman and having a single medical response and transport service to the most appropriate hospital. "This isn't new. It's being done all over the state."
The question now is whether the Lee County commissioners will agree to the audit. The fire district's initial request for an ambulance certificate will go back before commissioners for a vote, but a date for the vote has not been set.