Photo by Josie Koler

The city commission is moving forward to begin contract negotiations with a different ambulance service company. Lifestar Response is now owned by the largest ambulance company in the world, Falck, based out of Denmark. The high ranking did not come without emotional testimony first and unsettling revelations about Key West Rescue’s seven-figure subsidies.

“I had an accident. I got hurt. I got hurt real bad. I was unconscious. I was about to die.”

“He was not breathing. They saved his life in the ambulance while taking him to the helicopter to fly him to Jackson Memorial in Miami.”

Key West’s Dean Cerssno was joined by his tearful wife Elizabeth Getz in front of the dais this Tuesday evening. Cerssno doesn’t want to recount the 2010 incident that nearly claimed his life. The memories are too painful. He just wants to let the city know Key West Rescue’s Paul Hansen saved his life.

“Anything you take into consideration for the contract you’re going to give out, hopefully they can do as good as this team did for me,” Cerssno said.

Since 1980, the city of Key West has been in contract agreement with Key West Rescue or American Medical Response (AMR). Besides user fees, a subsidy has been built into the contract model; $625,000 – $750,000 every year, money that has never been accounted for with itemized expenses relating to the community’s ambulance use.

“We wrote a check for $750,000. We wrote a check, and we don’t know how that money was spent and whether it was a good year or a bad year,” pointed out Commissioner Barry Gibson during September’s meeting on the issue when AMR was ranked first out of three ambulance companies. Gibson threw his weight behind Lifestar as did Commissioner Teri Johnston. Commissioner Clayton Lopez, Vice Mayor Mark Rossi, Commissioner Billy Wardlow, and Commissioner Jimmy Weekley all continued to support American Medical Response. Until the next meeting where the vice mayor apologized and said he didn’t realize the rankings meant the city would enter into negotiations with the highest ranked service. A workshop was held and the contracts for Lifestar, AMR, and American Ambulance studied.

Disregarding the unaccounted subsidies, Rossi pointed out several factors which he said he feels we cannot place a price tag on; employee retention, a change in management, geographic location, and our globally renown parties.

“I’ve seen a lot of people come in here and personally tell me they’re going to show me how it’s done. I’ll tell you what. They show me how it’s done on their way out on highway one. Every changeover in different management has a different way of doing things. What happens to Key West in five to seven months under new management and we’ve lost these employees? Over a period of time there might be management issues. Then, what’s left? Then the company decides they can’t do it. Then my fire chiefs have to come in here and pick up the mess. Key West is a lot different. I live on Duval Street. I see what they do.”

Commissioner Wardlow, who is a former Key West fire chief, is in agreement with Rossi. Stating back in September, “in my 30 years of experience with Key West Rescue, if we were running agility tests, drills, EMT recertification, we would just pick up the phone and call for them. Fire and ambulance never got along until American Medical Response came to town and ever since then we’ve had a good relationship with them. I always figured the equipment and medical supplies were part of the subsidy.”

When Rossi told Barbara Santiago, the general manager of American Medical Response he had a real problem with the amount of the subsidy she said times are tough right now. Pointing out the 500 transports alone for the homeless last year and the patients relying on Medicare and Medicaid.

Dave Erlandson is a doctor at Lower Keys Medical Center’s ER and remembers the first time he visited Key West in 1992 and stayed in a room on Eaton Street during Fantasy Fest. 

“I saw 75,000 people on the street and an ambulance on every corner. Probably everyone had an alcohol level greater than 200. I thought, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ I can’t think of anything more important than the selection of an emergency service provider for Key West. Look at what you need. You can’t settle for less.”

Doug Tisdale is the southeast regional vice president for Lifestar. He’s also been passionate about saving lives since his high school janitor wrecked his vehicle while on the way to school one fateful morning in southern Alabama.

“There were three people that were killed. He was ejected and laying out on the highway. His leg was broken such that his foot was lying up by his head. I didn’t know what to do. I had no clue how to help him. So I said, ‘I don’t ever went to be in this position again,’ and started training in emergency response. Then said, ‘well if I’m going to do it, might as well go all the way,’ and went on to paramedic school.”

Today, Tisdale is focused on administration but twice a month still pulls a shift on an ambulance to make sure he’s in tune with what EMTs face. Right now, those negatives are long hours and low pay because of uninsured patients relying on the service as a rolling doctors office or from repeat alcohol and drug abuse. He says such patients are not unique to Key West.

“Instead of just transporting them five times and hoping they don’t call back we sit down with them and ask, ‘how can we help?’ We want to help them get insurance or get in a clinic. Most of the time, they’re asking for help. Most of them are not abusing the system.”

With Tisdale at the helm, Lifestar has put together a plan, which does not include a stipend. He tells the Key West Weekly, he does not wish to use Key West as a “cash cow” but like any business does need to turn a profit. He feels their management team is capable of tending to the needs of the island because they are on duty for the Preakness in Baltimore, every single home Ravens football game; and high school football, car races, dirt track races, and motor cross racing.

Also, they plan to retain every employee and paramedic currently with Key West Rescue.

“We want people to understand they’re getting the same people they’re used to seeing.

They’re going to have a different color uniform, a different color ambulance, and will have all brand new equipment, brand new ambulances, brand new monitors, brand new stretchers. We’re going to improve everything already established.”

He has plans to build relationships with the six existing helicopter services in Monroe County as well as the county’s ambulance service. They’re service in southern Alabama gives them hurricane experience.

“We could have 10 to 12 vehicles here within 24 hours in the event of an emergency. We’re very well prepared,” Tisdale affirms.

A consultant, Harold Cohen, hired by the city to study the ambulance proposals, reminded the dais: all of the competitors promise to employ the same paramedics, drivers, support, and dispatch on the job now; all they would have to do is present a pay stub to be transferred over to Lifestar. Ninety five percent of these current AMR employees live in the Lower Keys or Key West and are major players in community events such as Prom Promise, Career Day, Children’s Day, the Holiday Parade, and multi-agency training. AMR has 245 ambulances in the state of Florida.

Before the rankings, Commissioner Wardlow pointed out he does not think we should be doing business with a company in Denmark when the message is to, “buy local. Buy in the USA,” and Commissioner Lopez stressed we have very little in common with the rest of Florida.

After two rankings, Commissioners Gibson, Lopez, Johnston, and Mayor Cates chose Lifestar. Commissioners Rossi, Wardlow, and Jimmy Weekley opted to stay with AMR. Contract negotiations are now in motion, and the vote on whether or not they award it to Lifestar (Falck) will be decided at the first meeting of 2011 on Tuesday, January 4.


Two Key West Rescue employees watch City Clerk Cheri Smith apply the commissioner’s rankings with uncertainty. Two Key West Rescue employees watch City Clerk Cheri Smith apply the commissioner’s rankings with uncertainty





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