Special EMS patrol planned for Anna Maria beaches

When driving onto Anna Maria Island, Tom Heath knows what to expect.

"The traffic crawls. You know," he said Tuesday afternoon.  "During a busy holiday weekend it takes 40 minutes to get here from U.S. 41."

Traffic can go on for miles without moving.  And as thousands pack the three beach cities during peak times, it also becomes a problem for Manatee County EMS.  They have one ambulance based on the island and another on Cortez.

"One of the things we found is that the traffic congestion on the bridges hinders our response if we have to bring a unit to the island that is not on the island," said Robert Smith, director of public safety for Manatee County.

Now EMS and Marine Rescue have formed a Marine Paramedic Unit.

"It will fill those gaps. They will be able to -- if a bridge is backed up or if there is traffic from spring break or some sort of a holiday -- they will be able to take those routes quicker than what an ambulance would provide," said Chief Joe Westerman of Marine Rescue.

A paramedic trained by Marine Rescue will roam the island in a marked SUV.  They will respond to calls that ambulances can't get too.

"The unit  would stay on the island and be able to respond to the island. It is a smaller more compact vehicle so it can navigate traffic a little bit easier," said Smith.

The Marine Paramedic Unit won't just be confined to the island's beaches.  If a person needs help at their home or elsewhere, the unit will be there as quickly as possible.

"It can go out on the beaches, if need be. It can go on some of the smaller alleyways, if need be," continued Smith.

Two medics will be assigned to 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. 

The new program won't cost the county any money because they are using existing resources, but even if it did, visitors say it is a good idea.

"To have somebody on standby like that, it could save lives," added Heath.

The Marine Paramedic Unit will be in service for four months.  After that period, the county will evaluate its service and determine if it should be expanded or stay in service.