Pressure has been building for weeks inside Three Rivers Ambulance Authority, where concerns over staffing and response times recently were compounded by the quicker-than-expected exit of its longtime leader.
Some of the stress could soon be relieved, when the agency's board meets Thursday to discuss hiring a new executive director. That's a piece of good news for an ambulance service facing serious challenges, but it's not likely to cure all of its ills.
It is a welcome first step, and a key member of a panel charged with interim leadership of the ambulance authority – Fort Wayne Fire Chief Eric Lahey – is committed to searching out answers to other important questions.
“Everything would be on the table,” he said Monday when asked about considering revisions to operational structures unchanged for decades.
Already a member of TRAA's Board of Directors, Lahey is also part of a three-member committee empaneled Sept. 10 to oversee the authority amid transition from retiring Executive Director Gary Booher to new leadership. Booher, facing questions from Fort Wayne City Council members and others, essentially quit this month when he moved to Oct. 1 an end-of-year retirement date and said he'd be on vacation the rest of September.
The ambulance authority has come under fire after it was revealed medics had been leaving their jobs for months and response times were rising. That was before the unexpected departures of Booher and Ian Case, who headed the union representing TRAA's EMTs and paramedics and recently resigned.
Add in questions about reliance on help from other ambulance providers and whether the 1970s-era economic and operational model upon which the ambulance authority still works, and leaders have some tough decisions to make.
The first, apparently, is deciding on a new director – something board members could vote on Thursday.
Because Booher announced earlier this year he would be leaving, the board has been working to find a replacement. More than 30 people applied for the job, Lahey said, and the field of qualified candidates was whittled down to 12. It was further winnowed to four finalists, and whoever is chosen could be on the job in early November.
The ambulance authority operates under a public utility model implemented in 1983 in which it purchases services from a Texas company for vehicles and staff. User fees, rather than tax money, pay for ambulance runs – something that saves the city money but leaves little financial flexibility to consider ways to offer employees more money as EMTs and paramedics leave for other jobs.
Lahey said potential fixes such as the fire department running emergency medical services – that was pitched unsuccessfully a few years ago – are not simple. Plans are in place to hire a consultant to examine TRAA to determine what is working, what isn't and what changes should be made.
“I don't think we're going to limit the consultant in anything,” Lahey said, adding that any potential changes will need buy-in from the board, the city and – possibly – taxpayers. “It's not as easy as 'Let's have a fire-based EMS system.' A fire-based EMS system has a cost to the taxpayer.”
Issues of emergency services and public safety are among the most crucial items municipal officials consider. As the next ambulance authority leader is chosen, it's important to ensure long-term solutions are found. New leadership is an opportunity to address recurring issues with the EMS operation.