New ambulance system in Sumter will be run by fire departments

The Villages Public Safety Department finalized its purchase of 12 ambulances to replace American Medical Response Ambulances, shown here, after receiving county approval.

Four months after Sumter County commissioners unanimously voted for two distinct ambulance services operated by the two fire departments, plans are beginning to take shape.

The board — sans suspended commissioners Oren Miller and Gary Search — held its first workshop on the topic last night.

While The Villages Public Safety Department last week finalized its purchase of 12 ambulances, County Administrator Bradley Arnold was still putting options on the table for ambulance service outside The Villages.

One option, he said, would be to use an interim or long-term “hybrid” transport option that would see the county purchase ambulances then lease them to a contracted provider.

Another would be to contract out the transport service to a provider such as the current arrangement with American Medical Rescue.

Sumter is already an outlier as one of only three counties that contract out to private ambulance services, according to a Daily Sun analysis of all 67 counties.

About 77% of Florida’s population of 22 million are served by fire-based ambulance systems.

That is the system that Sumter should adopt, commissioners again affirmed.

“I did not think we were going to go through all these options again,”  said Commissioner Doug Gilpin, who represents a district outside The Villages. “The board direction is guided by the chairman. But I’m going to continue to fight for what I believe in. My position hasn’t changed at all.”

Arnold intimated in December that Sumter County firefighters may not want to take on ambulance service.

But he acknowledged Tuesday that polling by their union found roughly 80% of those surveyed are on board.

The delay all but ensures an extension of AMR’s contract that expires Sept. 30 since an ambulance order generally takes 10 to 12 months to fill.

“I’m not comfortable moving forward with AMR, so that puts us in a bind,” Gilpin said. “There are not going to be many companies that want to jump in for a temporary solution. So that’s another one of those things where we’re in a bad position. This has kind of got away from us, so I hope we can reel it back in and move forward in the right fashion and support our citizens.”

Sumter County Fire Chief Rob Hanson said he would need $3.3 million for 12 ambulances, plus $5.1 million to hire 63 people to operate them.

He estimated the cost would be offset by about $1.6 million annually in revenue.

Under the newly elected majority of Craig Estep, Miller and Search, the commission passed a budget with 25% more spending  but no money for ambulances.

Gilpin suggested that some of the $25 million Sumter got in federal COVID funds be applied to the ambulance issue, as other counties have done.

But he was overruled by Estep, Miller and Search, who earmarked the money for sewer and broadband projects.

Gilpin last night again questioned that decision.

“Typically, the infrastructure for high-speed internet is a business thing that companies put in when they have the customers to support that,” he said. “So we’ve directed funds there that could very well be used to acquire ambulances. Unless we find a way to do this and not increase the fire fee, it troubles me.”

He asked if AMR would be willing to sell any of its ambulances.

Arnold said he had broached the topic, but “they were noncommittal until the board had a clear direction.”

Gilpin said he was “very unhappy” with the whole process.

“We’ve spent months and months dealing with all kinds of other issues and this is the most important thing that we have going on,” he said. “This last year we didn’t focus enough on this issue. We’ve spent the bulk of our time led by the (Estep, Miller, Search) team talking about animal rights, One Sumter, the public information office, complaining about the media and making changes to the county’s mission statement, while services to citizens lagged behind.”

Commissioner Garry Breeden, who also represents a district outside The Villages, said Oct. 1 should still be the target date.

“We can put together the money to put it in place, time is going to be the issue,” he said. “We need to get the units here, we need to get people hired and trained. There’s a whole myriad of things to accomplish in less than 10 months. But I think we need to set that target and proceed from there.”

Chairman Estep agreed.

“We’re going to be up against the wall here,” he acknowledged. “Not just with equipment but mainly with the personnel issues.”

Gilpin added that delaying action during a pandemic-fueled labor shortage, combined with Sumter’s lack of affordable housing, makes it harder than ever to lure first responders.

“The people we count on the most, we’ve left them hanging month after month,” he said. “So I am glad we’re finally talking about this.”

Chief Hanson said that the board again rejecting other options makes his marching orders clear.

“It certainly helps us execute more recruiting practices and we can start climbing that mountain, too,” he said.