Mayor: Ambulance service in Hillsboro ‘a great big mess’

Mayor Delores Dalke
Mayor Delores Dalke
Mayor Delores Dalke updated the Hillsboro City Council about her efforts to strengthen local ambulance service, which she described as “a great big mess.”

“We do not have enough volunteers because the people who were volunteering were hired as full-time people to work out of Marion,” Dalke said near the end of the council’s March 7 meeting.

“So we’re really hurting during the day, and there are several days every week when we don’t have any ambulance service here in town. There are some nights where we don’t have help, either.”

Dalke said she has begun attending county commission meetings to improve Hillsboro’s situation.

“They more or less told me if we can find a place to house the people they would put full-time people in Hills­boro,” she said. “I have found a place where they could be housed because they would be working 24-hour shifts. They need a place to sleep and to eat when they’re not on the road.”

Dalke reported that Salem Home, one of two senior-care facilities in Hillsboro, has offered the city use of the apartment below the current hospital clinic at no charge once the new hospital facility is completed.

“If that doesn’t work out, we (may) have to rent a different place in the future, but I think right now there would be no cost to us.”

To illustrate Hillsboro’s predicament, Dalke highlighted a case where an older couple in an emergency situation had to wait for an ambulance and crew to arrive from Tampa because no local service was available.

A similar situation occurred when a resident was having heart issues and needed transportation to the hospital, she said.

“When you have something going on with your heart, you do not want to wait for people to come from their home, get into an ambulance from Tampa and drive to Hillsboro,” Dalke said. “But there wasn’t anybody to run the ambulance here. We’re in bad shape.”

Other solutions?

Councilor Bob Watson suggested the best solution would have been to have had an ambulance barn built at the new hospital facility located along U.S. Highway 56.

“At first, (Hillsboro Community Hospital owners) had talked about putting a garage out there for the ambulance, but nobody knew (county commissioners) were planning to put people on for 24-hour shifts, and that they had have to have a place to sleep, cook, eat and all that,” Dalke said.

“That was something that wasn’t added to the hospital (project) because nobody told us that was (the county’s) plan.”

Lou Thurston, a local resident attending the meeting, asked if the city had ever investigated starting its own ambulance service, given the need represented by a hospital, two nursing homes, a college, public schools beyond the general population.

“We can’t afford it,” Dalke said of the suggestion.

“But we can’t afford not to have one,” Thurston said. “We’re always going to be at the vagaries of the county as long as (EMS is) a county enterprise.”

City Administrator Larry Paine said other citizens have suggested the city operate it’s own service.

“Looking at it from the financial standpoint, it is tremendously expensive in comparison to start-up,” he said. “With what we have right now with the budget-lid law, we can’t really go in without having a city-wide vote to establish that sort of thing.”

The budget-lid law, passed by the Legislature last year, requires cities to receive citizen approval via an election if it wants to increase its local budget beyond a cost of living increase.

Paine said providing 24-hour ambulance service would require hiring 12 EMS professionals to operate the service because each team of two would be on duty for one 24-hour cycle, then off for two 24-hour cycles.

“Filling a 24-hour shift over a seven-day period actually takes six people, so when you run two people on the shift, you’re up to 12,” Paine said.

“That’s half the employees we already have employed with the city. That’s quite expensive.”

Intermediate goal

Dalke said for the time being, her goal is to have county commissioners treat the cities of Marion and Hillsboro on equal footing when it comes to EMS services.

“We hope we can get them to pay people to be in Hills­boro,” Dalke said. “I found out their original plan had been to put two full shifts in Marion and two full ambulances, and none over here. So I’ve been over there talking. We’re hoping that we get one of them here.”

Dalke added, “If we have to even pay to keep the people (housed), then Marion needs to pay to keep the people (housed) over there.

“We shouldn’t be treated any different because we’re the largest population center—and we have the most need with having a college besides the schools and the nursing homes and everybody else.”

Dalke also noted Hills­boro’s assessed value of $16 million compared to $10 million for the next highest entity.

Policy problems

Council Byron McCarty said he understood the reasons for paying EMS staff, but asked if that policy is having an impact on recruiting local volunteer technicians.

“It always does,” Dalke said. “It’s horrible to be on the ambulance crew now, and it would be horrible to be really ill and having to wait for an ambulance to come.”

Dalke said she wasn’t coming to the council with any particular recommendation or request.

“I would just like to have you approve that I continue offering space and that kind of thing, and work with the county commissioners to get full-time ambulance service here,” she said.

“Somebody needs to keep going over there to keep talking to them.”

By concensus, the council affirmed her to represent Hillsboro’s concerns.