HERNANDO BEACH — On the day before Thanksgiving, Hernando Beach resident Diane Martinez visited the community fire station with a gift of food for the volunteers.
While there, Martinez leaned down to pet the station's 70-pound, 1 ½-year-old brown and white pit bull mix, Sam, and the dog severely bit her in the face.
But instead of calling an ambulance, the volunteers called the woman's husband and had him take her to Oak Hill Hospital.
About four hours later, officials said, Martinez was transferred by county ambulance to the trauma center at the Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point because of the severity of the wound.
That decision and the fact that no calls came from the volunteer fire department to Hernando County Fire Rescue, the Sheriff's Office Animal Services officer or the Health Department, which handles dog bites, has raised questions with county officials and stirred outrage among Hernando Beach residents aware of the incident.
This week, after county commissioners were questioned about the dog attack, they decided it is time to formally ask residents of Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn, the areas served by the volunteer fire department, whether they want to continue that service, join Hernando County Fire Service or choose some other option.
By consensus, the commissioners asked county staffers to research the options for a poll or a vote and return at a future meeting to formalize the action.
The Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department recently has come under scrutiny for misuse of a gasoline card, allegations of alcohol consumption at the station and a scolding by the county attorney's office about insurance certificates, written protocols and a lease agreement.
Former Chief David Freda also was required to get a signed contract with a medical director because he had been without one for several months.
Most recently, the department withdrew its proposed legislative bill to become an independent special taxing district, and the Nature Coast Action Team in Hernando Beach took up the cause of getting county ambulance and paramedic services placed in the area. The volunteer department can provide only basic life support services.
The two county fire stations that provide ambulance service and advanced life support services to the area are on the east side of U.S. 19.
Martinez, the dog bite victim, told the Times that a volunteer at the station told her they would call an ambulance, but she said her husband could get her to the hospital faster. The volunteer then asked which hospital she wanted to go to.
A county ambulance would have handled that differently, according to Hernando County Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Carroll. Trained paramedics would have taken her to a trauma center immediately, given the nature of the injury. And if she refused transport, they would have recommended the nearest trauma center, he said.
Forrest Bennett, the president of the Nature Coast Action Team, questioned county commissioners Tuesday about the dog bite and asked what could be done by the county to ensure that residents in coastal Hernando have their health, safety and welfare protected.
Considering past history and the dog bite incident, he said, he had "grave concerns regarding the judgment, abilities and capabilities of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department."
County officials didn't learn of the attack until they had to transport Martinez to Bayonet Point. While volunteer department Chief Travis Morris said he called the Sheriff's Office, the Sheriff's Office has no record of that call. The Health Department was not notified of the bite until five days later, and that was by the hospital.
They then quarantined Sam for the required 10 days at the firehouse. He was up to date on his rabies vaccination and was released from quarantine Monday. Morris said the dog will not live at the station anymore, and he is looking for a good home for the pet.
Bennett asked county officials who could provide accountability and supervision for the volunteer department. County Administrator Len Sossamon said that was the job of the people who live in the district because the volunteer department is independent of the county.
That's when commissioners decided it was time to let residents make a decision regarding their fire service and medical provider.
Bennett said he knew that the question would pose a difficult political situation, but "nothing is more important than saving lives."
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.