Two EMS transport providers will fill in for the suspended MEDSTAR as Lee County reconfigures its service in a push to gain national accreditation.
Bayflite in St. Petersburg moved a helicopter to North Port and Aeromed relocated a helicopter from LaBelle to Fort Myers last week after Lee County EMS suspended its MEDSTAR - helicopter - flight operations temporarily.
Kim Dickerson, operations chief for Lee County EMS, explained that the director of flight operations was let go on Aug. 21, and federal regulations require that the service have a director in place to stay up and running.
"We could not continue flying at that point," she said.
Three MEDSTAR pilots were also let go as a result.
Bayflite and Aeromed will cover Lee County until the service resumes. The county can also seek mutual aid from Collier County EMS if it is needed.
"We really try to support each other," Dickerson said, adding that the assistance will not cost taxpayers. "They're doing it at no charge to us."
In 2011, Lee County EMS responded to 80,876 calls for service. Of the number of calls, MEDSTAR responded to 525 - less than 1 percent.
"Our helicopter is really our second response vehicle," she said.
Ambulances remain the primary vehicle, servicing more calls.
"We don't use it (MEDSTAR) so much in town cause it's faster still by ground," she said. "But, they do provide a very beneficial service."
MEDSTAR is mainly used to transport patients off the barrier islands and when patients require a trauma alert. The service is also utilized for critical care interfacility transfers, which mutual aid will help cover in the interim.
There was an average of one transfer every three to four days in 2011.
During the suspension, Lee County has also placed an additional ambulance into service to cover the U.S. 41 corridor. Staffing was made possible with the 12 MEDSTAR paramedics, who were reassigned to ground ambulances.
"Ground ambulances will still respond," Dickerson said.
Officials anticipate resuming operations in six to nine months.
The operational redesign of MEDSTAR will be developed around meeting or exceeding the standards established by the Commission of Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems. These are the best practices for medical care configurations and operations of rotor-wing and critical ground transport.
"The team that was in place really wasn't the mix," Dickerson said. "We just felt that was not the mix of personnel to start developing the program."
The county will seek accreditation after the service has resumed.
"It is purely voluntary," she said. "It is not mandated."
Currently, MEDSTAR is in compliance with Florida's rules and regulations required to run a helicopter program, as well as federal regulations.
"There are no defined standards, if you will, for our state," Dickerson said.
The national standards provide a tested set of policies and procedures to follow, and the accreditation would show adherence to those standards.
"It's something to validate our program," she said.
During the reconfiguration, all service delivery models will be researched, including a public-private partnership. The county will review all options.
"A rebuild versus, 'Are there other alternative methods?'" Dickerson said.
She called public safety the number one goal of Lee County EMS.
"Providing the right resource to the right call," Dickerson said. "It (the suspension) does give us the opportunity to go ahead and look at that."