FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — In May, the Allen County Fire Chiefs Association penned a letter to Fort Wayne City Council members and to Mayor Tom Henry’s office.
In the letter, the county chiefs acknowledge both the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority’s recent shortcomings and the fact that the organization is working hard to get back on track.
Since 2020, TRAA has dealt with major staffing shortages and some internal issues that have led to numerous “Level Zero” calls where TRAA doesn’t have an ambulance available to send on an EMS run.
President of the Allen County Fire Chiefs Association Robert Boren tells WANE 15 what started as a “mutual aid” courtesy among first responders turned into a “permanent band-aid” to TRAA’s troubles.
In response to those level zero calls, Allen County fire departments that have an ambulance would drive to Fort Wayne to transport a patient.
The Fort Wayne Fire Department has paramedics and advanced EMT’s on its engines, but is not certified to make transports.
Relying on county ambulances means wait times of up to 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
“It’s just greatly affecting how the responses are going,” Boren said. “We don’t want them to affect patient care. We can say that probably no one has been affected by it right now, but we do not want to get to that point. So, it’s the urgency of taking care of it before someone’s life is really in danger.”
In the letter sent by the fire chiefs, they ask for Fort Wayne city government and the FWFD to step in and help pick up the slack while TRAA works towards being fully staffed again under new executive director Joel Benz, who took over last September.
“We’ve been working together. You know, the county fire chiefs do have a point. They would like to see us fix this tomorrow. So, they’re trying to push any way they can that we could do something a little big faster. I understand that and we’ve tried to work hard,” Benz said. “We are the ambulance service, and it is our responsibility to show up when people call. So, we’re doing our best.”
Benz told WANE 15 that staff is up to 63 full-timers, up from 46 last July, and will add 9 recruits through its earn-to-learn program next week.
The problem is a full staff is 80, according to Benz, and he knows it takes time to get everyone fully trained and out on the streets.
Benz has made numerous changes in order to try and turn things around at TRAA and make the operation more efficient, but he admits that nothing they can do will be a quick fix.
Benz told WANE 15 he’s thankful to the county fire chiefs and all first responders who’ve stepped up to help TRAA over the last two years.
He also said that while Fort Wayne firefighters do show up to level zero calls, it would be up to the department leaders if they wanted to do more.
Boren said that more can certainly be done if the city and fire department worked together to assist TRAA.
“There are things that the city can do. There’s ways that they can look to trying to get ambulances in the engine houses, there’s ways that they can look to get some kind of relief. There’s interlocal agreements that can be maybe be re-looked at and analyzed to see if things can be different in the EMS service across the board in Fort Wayne. Those are the things that we think that they need to focus on. Any of those could be an option to help ease the burden off of county,” Boren said.
In response to an inquiry regarding all of this, John Perlich, the head of Mayor Henry’s public information office, sent this statement to WANE 15:
“TRAA is an independent entity formed under an interlocal agreement between the City and County. Both entities appoint members to the board of directors. The City does not have a direct role or responsibility with providing a solution. However, City officials are meeting with the TRAA board, and the City has been involved in the discussions to help TRAA identify solutions to the nationwide paramedic shortage. The issues being raised by the county fire chiefs are concerns that will have to be addressed by TRAA. We can continue to help be part of discussions and look for solutions to challenges, but it’s not our direct oversight or jurisdiction. Also, the Fort Wayne Fire Department will not be transporting patients. It’s not how the emergency system in our community is designed. Having our department transport patients would pull our crews off of fire responses and lead to longer response times on the top priority of our department, which is to save lives and property in fire emergencies. Our proactive fire response makes our community safer with four minute response times, our ISO rating is low, which is what we want and that leads to lower insurance premiums for homeowners. We will continue to provide emergency medical/first responder services in the City of Fort Wayne, but not in a transport capacity.”
WANE’s 15 Finds Out team also reached out to the Fort Wayne Fire Department for comments, but was referred to the above statement.
2nd District Fort Wayne City Councilman Russ Jehl believes that the city should step in and do something before county fire chiefs either decide to no longer provide mutual aid, or if they simply don’t have the resources to assist TRAA while covering their own jurisdictions.
“If that is truly the response, saying ‘Oh, that’s not our thing,’ that is extremely derelict and explains why this needs to be confronted in a formal way and why real responses need to be given,” Jehl said about the statement sent by Perlich. “I believe the standard question we should ask is are we as the city doing everything we can to help those with emergency medical situations get the help that they need. Clearly, right now TRAA is doing everything it can, but it still needs help.”
The councilman sent a formal letter to Fort Wayne Fire Chief Eric Lahey asking for a formal response as to why FWFD can’t step in and help with transports.
You can read that full letter Jehl sent, along with the letter the Allen County Fire Chiefs Association sent to city council and to city administration below:
Jehl said he has proposed the city use part of its ARPA funds it received as pandemic relief to assist TRAA. He figures $3-5 million would be an appropriate amount. He’d also like to see some of the ARPA funds go towards paying the city’s new trash collector, GFL Environmental USA, in order to lower rates.
The fact of the matter is, while all of this is going on, the Allen County Fire Chiefs are growing more and more frustrated.
They don’t want to keep putting patients at risk by having to wait for them to arrive, and at the same time, they’re not available to help if an EMS run is called out in their own city while they’re in Fort Wayne.
“When an ambulance in the county responds into the city, you can start a domino effect. So, if a fire department “A” responds into the city to take care of a level zero, and fire department “A” now has their own emergency call that they need an ambulance for, fire department “B” has to respond in the fire department “A” area. So the domino effect just keeps going into the next department after the next department and that effect can have a huge toll on anyone and the response times to them,” Boren said.
He and the other chiefs know there isn’t anything the city or FWFD could do that would be considered an easy fix, but he believes if everyone works toward a solution, they can better serve everyone.
“It’s not easy work, and it’s not comfortable work, but it can be done in order to get just a temporary fix. And this isn’t a permanent fix. It’s just a temporary fix to get it to assist TRAA out. TRAA needs help getting this problem fixed. And the city of Fort Wayne needs to step in and help,” Boren said.