It has been said that within Collier County, there exists three “black holes.” They are economic development, fire district consolidation and charter government. The three issues are frequently talked about, studied, analyzed and debated but nothing of substance ever comes from all of it. All these efforts invariably fade into the black hole of inaction.
This black hole was on display April 25 and 26 when fire commissioners, county commissioners and countless fire and emergency medical chiefs came together, in two intertwined workshops, to discuss fire district and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) consolidation. A grand total of 7 hours worth of workshop, more than $2 million in payroll and very little accomplished.
Defenders of the fire district status quo will disagree with my assessment of the April 25 workshop attended by commissioners representing the North Naples, East Naples and Golden Gate fire districts. That is because we 12 fire commissioners, in an effort to close the meeting out, asked the chiefs to “dust off” a 5-year-old fire/EMS consolidation study, bring it up to date and apply it to a consolidation of North Naples, East Naples and Golden Gate fire districts. A study that when completed in 2007 concluded that consolidation might increase effectiveness but would not save money. The up to date “dust off” will conclude the same. The status quo will be protected.
The April 26 workshop, hosted by the Collier County Commission, concluded in a dysfunctional cloud of hostility and animosity but managed to charge county staff with working with the fire districts on a plan to grant three fire departments the privilege of having their own ambulances. A proposal that has no chance of succeeding since it is seen as an attempt to further fragment emergency services within Collier County.
Why should the public expect any other outcome? Such workshops have been held for at least 25 years and nothing has changed. County Commission Chairman Fred Coyle summed it up best when he said “I have heard nothing new and don’t expect to hear anything new.” Amen to that.
The tiresome, dysfunctional nature of the relationship between county government, fire district chiefs, commissioners and EMS management was openly on display. Workshop participants began absenting themselves hours before the drawn out conclusion. The Collier County medical director walked out of the room when the fire chiefs began their “give us ambulances” plea. Oddly enough, he returned in time for the conclusion of the presentation. Collier County governance on full display. Built up animosities were verbalized and on display. The black hole widened.
There was, in my opinion, a bright note in the proceedings. A representative of the newly formed Collier Community Alliance presented an outline of a concept being developed by said Alliance. No where near a final product but interesting nonetheless. She outlined a combined fire and emergency medical organization under the management of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. Such a concept would have huge hurdles to overcome but it reflects grassroots thinking and a fresh look at how best to deliver these vital services. The audience was informed that the alliance would develop a 21st century structure that would trim the redundant overhead and emphasize the vital roles played by the station level first responders.
Hopefully, from this 25-year-old pile of turf protecting antics, we will see the public rise up and get involved with fresh ideas and drive an effort to seek a better way to deliver emergency services. The points made by the Alliance representative motivated me to begin putting together the details of fire district reorganization that I have gradually pieced together. A reorganization that builds upon the strengths of the existing structure neutralizes the weaknesses and better serves our residents. Stay tuned.
The opinions expressed above are mine and not necessarily those of my fellow commissioners.
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Jim Burke is a commissioner on the North Naples Fire & Rescue District board.