When Lew Simon was growing up in Chicago, his father often took him and his brother to visit the nearest fire station so that they could sit in the shiny, red fire trucks.
It’s one of Simon’s fondest childhood memories and the reason why he has spent 10 years volunteering for the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department.
The urge to volunteer, however, was spurred by rejection.
In 1977, Simon submitted an application to fight fires as a volunteer in Barrington, Ill. That dream was quickly cut short when his application was denied because he was 36 years old, which the fire department deemed too old for active service.
Refusing to give up, Simon sought and won a trustee board seat for Barrington’s fire department, for which he helped to manage the 63-square-mile fire-protection district for nine years.
The job sparked a passion for fire-and-rescue services that continued when Simon moved to Longboat Key and later became president of The Sanctuary condominium in 1998.
The retired owner of a successful jet-leasing consulting company, Simon’s knowledge of the fire-rescue department piqued the interest of Longboat Key Fire Chief Julius Halas.
Halas had heard rumors about this new condominium president mandating that all the community’s employees become CPR trained.
And, when Halas heard that Simon got his board of directors to agree to purchase a $3,500 automated external defibrillator (AED), which shocks your heart by getting it back into a rhythm, Halas set up a lunch meeting with Simon in 1999.
“When I found out there was this guy in town who convinced his board to buy one of the first AEDs for condominium use in all of south Florida, I knew I had to meet him,” Halas said.
Ten years later, Simon, 68, has a busy “retirement” schedule as the head of the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Volunteer Department.
Simon helped expand the fire department’s volunteer service, with the support of Halas, by pushing for AEDs in condominiums all over the Key.
“We showed how the AEDs worked to save lives,” Simon said.
Now, there are more than 120 AEDs on the island (which cost approximately $1,000 each) that many residents and resort staff have been trained to use.
Halas said Longboat Key has more AEDs per capita than any other community nationwide.
Said Simon: “If a person goes into cardiac arrest and waits for the paramedics, their chance of survival is 5% to 7%. With the use of an AED before the paramedics arrive, the chance of survival rises to 50% to 60%. AEDs buy you time and buy you extra life.”
Longboat Key Club and Resort Safety Manager Robert Hunt said more than 400 people have been trained in emergency-response practices over the years at the club, which now has 18 AEDs onsite.
“Lew started the ball rolling here without a doubt,” said Hunt, who requires all club managers to take Simon’s AED and CPR class. “Lew is very passionate about what he does, and that’s why people enjoy his class and remember how to act in an emergency situation.”
Simon, now a resident of The Villages, and the Longboat Key Volunteer Fire Department enhanced the AED program last year by incorporating it into a new program, Neighbors Saving Neighbors.
“We had the AEDs, but we needed a way for people to know that someone nearby was having a cardiac arrest,” Simon said.
With the help of the town’s Management Information Systems department and MIS Director Kathi Pletzke, a pager-notification system was developed last year that ties into the 911 emergency dispatch system.
Now, when a cardiac-arrest distress call comes in from any of Longboat Key’s condominiums participating in the pager program, a 911 operator alerts neighbors by pager about the exact location of the emergency.
The program, which costs $6 per month for participating residents, has proven to be so reliable that Halas did not sign off on a new agreement with Manatee County to use their 911 emergency dispatch system until the county found a way to incorporate the pager system into their program.
“You always like to hear about people being saved and knowing you played a part in that,” Simon said.
“But, for me, it’s more rewarding to train people and know they will walk out of my class able to save lives.”
“The pager-notification system is our missing link,” Halas said.
And in November, the program proved its worth when a Villages resident in Simon’s neighborhood went into cardiac arrest.
Within minutes, residents swarmed on the home and administered CPR, shocking their neighbor four times with an AED, which was critical in saving his life. Simon’s neighbor was clinically dead for 10 minutes before being revived.