ORANGE PARK – More than 50 concerned and vocal residents poured into Orange Park Town Hall March 29 for a special meeting in the aftermath of the county removing its ambulance from the Orange Park Fire Department.
Originally called to discuss updates to the town’s comprehensive plan, the ambulance issuse quickly became the focal point after the Board of County Commissioners voted to take back control of Rescue 19 and subsequently remove it from the Orange Park Fire Department Station 19.
After the BCC vote, there became a growing concern that the lack of having an ambulance would lead to the need to downsize staff at the town’s fire department. While no jobs were lost, the only ambulance housed in the OPFD was and is now in the hands of Clay County. According to Orange Park Town Attorney Sam Garrison, what the BCC has done is completely legal – Clay County technically owns the ambulance and because of that, they do have the right to remove it from Station 19.
In a previous story, Clay Today reported that Town Manager Sarah Campbell believes there has been a drop in service since Rescue 19 was removed from Orange Park. During the special meeting, Campbell provided the March 29 call log of the OPFD. It showed that the OPFD crew arrived to a scene in Orange Park in an average of four minutes, while Clay County crews arrived in an average of seven minutes. Campbell showed that this indicated a three-minute difference in response time, a difference that might not be there if Rescue 19 were housed in Station 19.
Clay County Fire Chief Lorin Mock is aware of these numbers but states that the National Fire Protection Association regulations are still being met.
“If you look at 1701, you’ll see we are to meet a certain standard,” Mock said. “That standard is an [Advanced Life Support] unit arriving to the scene within eight minutes 90 percent of the time.
“If you look at the numbers since the transition, that standard is still being met,” Mock said.
Looking at the numbers Campbell presented, it would seem that NFPA 1701 is still being met. Mock said that every engine, both ambulance and fire truck, are ALS-certified meaning that – even without an ambulance – Orange Park is able to stabilize a person in need at the scene. The difference between a fire truck and an ambulance is that the fire truck can put out fires and the ambulance can transport a person to a hospital.
“As far as helping someone who needs medical attention, they can both get the job done, or at least stabilize the person until further assistance is granted,” Mock said.
He said answering an emergency call is a three-step process. Step one is to arrive. Step two is to stabilize. A firetruck can make step one and step two happen, according to Mock. NFPA 1701 is met each time a firetruck completes these two steps. Step three is the transportation, which can only be completed by an ambulance but this step is not taken into account for NFPA 1701.
“So you see, as long as my men and women are out there doing the great work they do each and every day, our response time and overall service time really isn’t changing,” Mock said.
At the bottom line, Mock said his one goal as Chief is to serve citizens in the best way possible and despite the current shakeups, he believes that can only be achieved by working together as a team. He hopes and believes this sentiment will be reflected regardless of the outcome of the current situation.
Before allowing the public to speak on the issue, Mayor Scott Land read a letter from BCC Chairman Gavin Rollins directed to the citizens of Orange Park.
“There have been publicized concerns about the safety and well-being of Orange Park residents, slower ambulance response times and even concerns about the decision having ‘life or death’ implications to town residents,” stated Rollins’ letter. “First, no service has been lost. Secondly, emergency response times will not be impacted.”
“The Orange Park Fire Department remains a key partner with Clay County Fire Rescue in providing first response Advanced Life Support services to the residents of Orange Park and the immediately adjacent unincorporated areas of Clay County,” Rollins’ letter continued. “They can provide the same level of emergency medical care at response scenes and at the same response times as prior to the County’s actions.”
The letter continued expressing Rollins’ belief that the original shared responsibility and partnership for EMS services between the town and the county is still the most effective, collaborative and efficient way to provide EMS and fire services to the town and county.
Despite what Rollins had to say in his letter, Orange Park citizens are not happy and their thoughts during the March 29 special meeting can best be described as disappointed and angry.
“I am a member of the senior citizen center and every time something happens, [OPFD] is right there,” Brenda Carmichael said, through tears, referencing OPFD’s proximity to the Orange Park Senior Center. “Please fight for them.”
Former OPFD firefighter and paramedic Douglas Hoffman explained that despite the BCC and county fire department stating that response times won’t go up, outlying factors will almost guarantee that isn’t true.
“For the county to say that times won’t be increased is superfluous,” Huffman said. “They have no control over the traffic and no control over the train.”
Others found themselves concerned with not only the loss of Rescue 19, but the fact that their tax dollars went into the purchase of this unit.
“The CCBCC must have overlooked the fact that portions of the tax dollars used to purchase EMS Unit 19 came from dollars collected from the taxpayers and citizens of the town of Orange Park as well as Clay County,” Marcia Drive resident Frank Ricketts said. “Moreover, the CCBCC clearly understood that the town of Orange Park’s current fiscal year’s budget was in fact fully funded and not in jeopardy lending no logical explanation for such a hostile, politically charged and childish maneuver.”
After over 30 minutes of public comment, with no citizens in favor of the decision made by the BCC, the Orange Park town council made a motion to move forward in pursuing a Certificate of Public Necessity to allow the town to run and own its own ambulance, after suggestions from Campbell and Garrison.
“Our one goal, period, end of sentence, full-stop – Mrs. Campbell is your town manager and I am your town attorney – is to do everything possible to ensure the citizens of Orange Park can have the highest quality advanced life support service and rescue that will respond as quick as possible,” Garrison said. “That’s why we pay our extra taxes and we think that’s the right thing to do and I trust that the folks in the county also want that, and not just for the town but for their sake as well and with that I recommend we move forward [in pursuing a Certificate of Need].”
The town council motion to continue pursuing a Certificate of Need passed 5-0. A second motion was made to have Land and Rollins meet to discuss the interests and goals of Orange Park and the county in this situation. This motion also passed 5-0.
The following Tuesday, on April 3, the Orange Park Town Council held a regularly scheduled meeting where once more, discussion regarding the removal of Rescue 19 from Station 19 occurred. At this meeting, the council echoed their thoughts from Thursday’s special meeting, noting the importance of what councilman Alan Watt calls taking the high ground.
“We must continue to take the high ground, despite our feelings on this,” Watt said.
During the regular meeting, Land explained how his meeting went with Rollins. According to Land, Rollins said the BCC would, above all else, prefer the EMS services of Clay County and Orange Park to revert back to the way they were before last week’s Rescue 19 removal. According to Land, he explained to Rollins that the town wants their own EMS services for many reasons but not because of money, which the council believes is what the BCC thinks is Orange Park’s reasoning behind the application for a CON.
After the council expressed further thoughts of disappointment and frustration with this ongoing issue, more townspeople – some who attended the special meeting and some new faces – informed the council of their feelings on the issue, all of which were feelings of negativity. To finish the discussion, Garrison told the council and the audience that he believes everyone involved will be working as hard as they can to tidy up this issue and lay it to rest.
“I trust and hope that everyone is going to be working on good faith to get this thing put to bed,” Garrison said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to have this drag out any longer than necessary. I mean, it’s miserable for everybody and most of all, for our citizens who are concerned.”
In other business, councilman Ron Raymond made himself a member of the audience at the April 3 meeting for almost 30 minutes. After the council decided not to vote on an issue brought to the dais by Raymond and his general government committee, Raymond asked to be excused. The council chose not to vote on the subject, which centered around moving a town employee from one section of supervision to another, as council members said it is not their role to micro-manage government on that level. Council members said it was the town manager’s jurisdiction to govern employees, something Campbell agreed with, although no decision regarding this employee was made.
Once excused, Raymond disappeared from the chambers for about five minutes before returning. Rather than taking his seat with the rest of the council, though, he sat in the audience and did so through the rest of the meeting.