Rescue 7, Lamar Co. deal to end

Published 11:24 pm Monday, February 23, 2009

Lamar County will end its financial support for the Southeast Mississippi Air Ambulance District on March 1.

County supervisors have opted to stay with a private air ambulance, which collects its fees from users rather than government subsidies.

Since 1971, Lamar County had been a member of the 10-county SEMAAD, which has provided emergency helicopter transport in the region.

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“As I’ve said before, SEMAAD and Rescue 7 did an outstanding job, but I just believe that we have come to a time and place where private industry has proven it can do a better job than government,” said Supervisor Dale Lucus said.

After March 1, the county will rely solely upon Baptist LifeFlight.

Florida-based Baptist received its state license Feb. 4 to operate a base out of Bobby Chain Municipal Airport in Hattiesburg. It also flies out of Mobile, Ala. SEMAAD’s helicopter, Rescue 7, will provide backup service to member counties in the district.

Lamar County would have paid $217,287 to SEMAAD this year even with the district’s helicopter serving as a back-up.

“With Baptist LifeFlight on line, which is still going to give us the same coverage or even better coverage than we’ve had in the past, at no cost to our taxpayers, as far as through tax money,” Supervisor Mike Backstrom said. “I don’t see why we should stay in and pay an additional $200,000-plus a year if we can get the same or better service for free.”

Supervisors will pay a prorated subsidy of $90,500 for the first five months of the fiscal year from October to February.

Other SEMAAD member counties are Covington, Forrest, Greene, Jefferson Davis, Marion, Pearl River and Perry.

“It’s not a surprise,” Forrest County Board of Supervisors President Charles Marshall said of Lamar’s decision. “They’ve been looking for ways to save money, but we’ve still got other counties involved, and we’ll see if we can do that, save money, somewhere else down the road.”

Dr. John Nelson, president of the SEMAAD board of directors and emergency services medical director at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, said he is disappointed at losing a founding member “but as a business, we go on.”

With Baptist covering a wider area than just the district’s 10 counties, Nelson said he found it difficult to understand Lamar’s decision.

“It’s unfortunate for the citizens of Lamar County, but that’s what this board has chosen to do,” Nelson said. “For some time now, they had voiced their concerns, and we’ve tried for some time to answer them. One of the main issues was the lack of a second helicopter. Well, we have two helicopters, and now it seems that the board of supervisors doesn’t want that.”