The scramble to relocate the county ambulance service out of the fire house in Lanark Village has settled down from an earlier flash point, but concerns remain about the future of the arrangement.
“We’re working together, we just had that trouble,” said Fire Chief David Curry, who oversees the 14-person roster of the St. James Lanark Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the fire house. Five of the firefighters have their Firefighter 1 certification.
The background of the dispute began sometime after the department granted permission for Curry and his 11-year-old son to reside at the fire house as repairs were made to their home. A 24-year veteran of the department, Curry said the arrangement allows him to more quickly respond to fire calls.
Back in July, Nikol Tschaepe, who directs plant operations for Weems Memorial Hospital, which operates the emergency services, came to the county commission with complaints from the EMS personal who serve the eastern end of the county out of the Lanark station.
“The work environment of the EMS station on the east side of the county continues to be unacceptable,” she wrote. “Over the last six months, the work environment continues to rapidly deteriorate and potentially puts EMS patients, staff, and county at risk.
“As a highlight of recent activity, the EMS crew has been unfortunately dealing with alcohol and illicit drug use at the station, theft and damage of personal property; animal abuse; reckless and truant children present at station daily and well into the early morning hours; unsanitary conditions of bathrooms, kitchen, and grounds; unprofessional behavior including the station being used as a community laundry mat, homeless shelter, etc.,” Tschaepe wrote to County Coordinator Michael Morón, citing specific EMS complaints.
In addition, she noted that parking had been unavailable for staff vehicles and EMS vehicles, and there had been instances of explicit graffiti and even a rattlesnake placed at the passenger side of an ambulance.
The commissioners took seriously Tschaepe’s concerns, and while as a tenant of the fire house, they couldn’t dictate its use, they took steps to engage Doug Shuler of Barnett, Fronzack, Barlowe & Shuler Architects in Tallahassee to review and propose necessary modifications to the Carrabelle annex, which is near the island View Park and which had been at one time used by the Florida Department of Transportation
Shuler estimated the cost of bringing the site up to par would range between $120,000 and $150,000. Commissioners were prepared to allocate up to $135,000 from the healthcare trust fund for the project, but was later determined that ownership was in the hands of the federal government through the state forestry department. In addition, the site is in a high-traffic portion of US 98, and would have required a caution light be installed to ensure there were no traffic difficulties.
In the end the county commission abandoned the idea, and suggested perhaps putting up a structure in Carrabelle, adjacent to the annex now being used by constitutional officers. Without delving too deeply into the costs of building that, the commissioners decided to hold off, as they wrestle with plans for a new hospital.
“That right now is probably a no go, at the moment,” said Morón. “The commissioners would prefer what we’re doing, first moving forward with a hospital before building another building. We’ve looked for maybe a rental building.”
Lanark residents Barbara Rohrs and Pat Funderburk have spoken at commission meeting regarding the problems with moving the ambulance service out of Lanark. Tschaepe and EMS Director Richard Lewis have been in talks with Lanark fire officials and residents, and say the ambulances can continue to provide fast response wherever on the east end they are located.
In addition, Lewis has been expanding ongoing training opportunities for first responders on the east end of the county, something Curry applauds,
“We need to move and get the station in better location. We want to make sure they have a professional, safe and healthy work environment,” Tschaepe said. “Right now we’re looking for places in rent, some places at Carrabelle we’re looking at. I might have to continually look.
“Richard Lewis attended the last Lanark Village fire department meeting,” she said. “He communicated well to the people in attendance and said the services that EMS provides will remain the same in Lanark Village as in Carrabelle. He hopes continuing to improve the community resources.”
Relocation will contribute to the improvement of the EMS service “so we can obtain excellent professional staff and we can respond in a most professional manner and have room for growth,” Tschaepe said.
Meanwhile, Curry said he would like to eventually see Lanark Village move to a paid department, and that keeping EMS at the fire house can help that process along.
Tschaepe said professionalizing the fire department is not a factor in the EMS discussions. “It has little bearing on whether Lanark Village can obtain a paid status,” she said.
In addition to the EMS issue, the Lanark fire department has other issues it must tackle. It recently had to let two of its members go, because of past felonies, and Curry operates under an emergency drivers license that limits him to working situations. “I am taking care of that,” he said.
Also, the county on Tuesday authorized an audit of the fire department books, since the department is a recipient of MSBU (Municipal Service Benefit Unit) monies. The issue concerns the possible theft of fire department property be a member.