Fire Department has multiple options for dealing with traffic congestion in the county, fire chief explains

Siesta residents worried about timely responses to emergencies with vehicles clogging roads

A Sarasota County fire truck and ambulance are part of a string of vehicles  on Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village on the night of Sunday, March 14. Contributed photo

As traffic congestion has worsened on Siesta Key in recent years, residents have voiced elevated worries about whether the Sarasota County Fire Department is able to get its vehicles to emergencies in a timely fashion.

Photos provided to The Sarasota News Leader since the tourist season began this year have shown both fire trucks and rescue vehicles that appear to be caught up in traffic jams.

Moreover, during Siesta Key Association (SKA) meetings, directors of the nonprofit and members continue to raise an alarm about the traffic’s impact on emergency operations. Over the past couple of years, individuals have talked of people allegedly having suffered heart attacks on Siesta Beach with paramedics unable to reach the patients until it was too late.

Yet, during a recent telephone interview with the News Leader, Fire Chief Michael Regnier enumerated the variety of measures the department utilizes to make certain that firefighters and paramedics can reach scenes quickly.

“We look at this from a very data-driven way,” he said, “to make sure we have resources throughout all of Sarasota. … My goal is to get to the patient as quickly as possible.”

In regard to the beach, Regnier explained that the lifeguards “are our initial response.”

If someone suffers a medical emergency, he said, the lifeguards, who are trained as first responders, will get an alert from 911 Dispatch.

“They report directly to Dispatch,” he pointed out, and, if Fire Department units also are responding to the situation, the lifeguards can convey necessary details to the firefighters/paramedics.

For example, Regnier noted, a lifeguard can provide the units precise details about where to find the person in distress. Because each lifeguard stand on Siesta has its own color, he said, “That helps tremendously.”

This is one of the distinctive lifeguard stands on Siesta Public Beach. File photo

“When I hear things like units can’t get to an emergency on time,” he told the News Leader, “I don’t necessarily agree because we have the lifeguards … and resources that are available pretty quickly.”

The lifeguards are on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sara Nealeigh, the county’s Emergency Services public information officer, noted. They are in their stands between 10 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., she added.

Moreover, Regnier continued, Fire Station 13 is very close to the beach park, and the crew can send an alternate vehicle with medical supplies to provide aid to someone until a rescue unit and/or fire truck can reach the scene.

Many years ago, he explained, the Fire Department upgraded all of its fire engines to what is called “advanced life support status.” That means at least one trained, certified paramedic is a member of each crew. Therefore, even if the closest rescue unit is tied up on another call, Regnier said, the crew on the fire engine can administer medication and even use a defibrillator on a patient.

Moreover, he continued, in a situation in which someone is having a heart attack, a rescue crew can handle all sorts of interventions in the back of an ambulance — including providing oxygen — while en route to the hospital. “We speak directly to the [Emergency Room] doctors and are guided by those doctors,” Regnier added.

In the spring of 2019, the Fire Department launched a pilot program with a Rapid Response vehicle to assist on calls, Nealeigh of Emergency Services told the News Leader. Rapid Response was used in conjunction with COVID-19 transports starting in March 2020, she added. Then, in May 2020, a permanent Medic 1 unit began service, Nealeigh noted.

A Rapid Response vehicle (left) faces a fire truck during a Sarasota County Facebook Live video made available on the Emergency Services page this month. Image courtesy Sarasota County via Facebook

The Rapid Response approach has proven its worth, Regnier said during the interview. Each crew can do everything paramedics with an ambulance can do, he said, except put someone on a cot.

In fact, he pointed out, an ambulance is not needed in some cases, anyway, so a Rapid Response crew often can handle all facets of an emergency.

Fast transit in spite of congestion

More anxiety has arisen on Siesta Key over the past year as four different project teams have proposed new hotels — with a couple of the initiatives calling for 170 rooms. Residents fear that if those projects win County Commission approval, the roads on the island will become even more clogged.

“I don’t get into politics at all,” Regnier told the News Leader.

As he has during public presentations on Siesta, Regnier explained to the News Leaderthat when Fire Department personnel are responding to emergencies, they utilize a system called Opticom; it allows them to make certain the traffic signals are green.

Fire Chief Mike Regnier. File photo

“We can take control of [an] intersection” as a unit approaches with its lights and siren operating, he told members of the Siesta Key Condominium Council in February 2020.

“The system works very well,” he emphasized during the interview with the News Leader.

Additionally, firefighters/paramedics are able to immediately alert the Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive drawbridge tenders to let them know when a unit is responding to an emergency, so the tenders will not raise the bridges during those times.

Regnier further noted that if the units from Fire Station 13 are on a call, and another emergency happens, the Fire Department easily can dispatch units from a different location in the area. For example, he said, he recalled an incident that occurred more than a year ago, when a unit from the Waldemere Street fire station — near Sarasota Memorial Hospital — responded to an emergency via the Siesta Drive bridge. “There was no issue there,” he stressed, in terms of getting to the scene in a timely fashion.

Additionally, the Fire Department moves units around as needed, Regnier said.

His staff also works with neighboring counties’ Emergency Services leaders, as well as the North Port Fire Department and Venice Fire Rescue, he said, to make certain that every area of the county has the support it needs.

Traffic congestion is a fact of life in Sarasota County during the height of tourist season, Regnier noted. Vehicles get tied up on Jacaranda Boulevard and Bee Ridge Road, for examples, as well as on the approaches to Siesta, he pointed out.

Finally, he talked of his excitement about the opening later this year of the new Fire Station 13 on Siesta Key, on the same site where the previous facility had stood since the 1970s.

“It’s moving very quickly,” he noted of the project. If all goes as planned — with no serious weather delays or issues with supplies — the station will be completed by mid-summer. “We’re doing really well [with the timeline].”

This is a rendering of the new Fire Station 13. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The new two-story station will be hurricane-hardened, he has pointed out, with the expectation that the crews will be able to use it immediately after a major storm event.

Crews still will be evacuated from the barrier island if a hurricane is approaching the Sarasota County coast, Regnier has explained. However, given the fact that the original Station 13 was at ground level, Fire Department leaders had concerns about damage to it from flooding.

The design of the new facility will make it much more effective for the crews, Regnier told the News Leader.

“It’s all about making people feel safe,” Regnier summed up his job.