Florida Keys News
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Corps ready for fire duty

The Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps says its personnel can take on fire-rescue duties if needed.

The Key Largo Fire-EMS District, which contracts for service with the Ambulance Corps and the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, voted last week to terminate, without cause, its contract with the fire department. The contract was set to expire in April of next year.

The district and department have entered a mediation period stipulated by their contract. If mediation fails, the district wants alternatives for providing fire service, including having the Ambulance Corps step up.

At a special meeting last week, the Ambulance Corps' board of directors approved a motion to provide any help the district requests during the mediation process.

Several firefighters who attended the meeting told the board they would work with them through the process.

"There seems to be some animosity among [the Ambulance Corps and the fire department]," Corps board member Russ Cullen said. "That's unacceptable. This is a management problem, not a firefighter problem."

Scott Robinson, vice president of the board, also stressed that any action by the Ambulance Corps shouldn't be viewed as a "takeover."

"We're doing this to help you," said Robinson, a regular critic of the fire department's management.

Prior to the special meeting, Ambulance Corps attorney Jack Bridges outlined the situation in a letter to his board. In it, he made recommendations on how to transition to fire-rescue service if the district eventually does request a takeover. Recommendations included preserving the heritage of the fire department, offering membership to firefighters at the same level they served the department and complying with a 2009 district audit that raised concerns with the department's accounting and management practices.

The audit, largely ignored by Fire Chief Sergio Garcia and the fire department leadership, led to an unravelling of relations between the district and department. More recently, the department was a year overdue on providing the district with its 2011 annual report and several months behind on submitting financial reports, both violations of its contract with the district.

Bridges also recommended that any new board of directors formed to oversee fire-rescue services should have at least two outside members. The fire chief should also be appointed by and serve at the board's pleasure, he wrote.

Currently, the fire department's board of directors and the chief are elected by the department's membership.

Attorney Theron Simmons, who represents the district, asked the Ambulance Corps board to be as specific as possible in what it was willing to do, whether that means forming and operating a new nonprofit 501(c)3 fire department or adding firefighting to its current duties.

The Ambulance Corps board stopped short of giving Simmons an outline of its intentions, but offered to help -- a response Simmons said he would take to the mediation table.

At the meeting last week, Fire Chief Garcia said his department would continue providing fire services to Key Largo regardless of how mediation goes.

"We're not going to abandon ship," he said.

jgore@keysnews.com

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