FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The Three Rivers Ambulance Authority enters a new era Thursday.

Not only are they independent of a for-profit, out-of-town contractor accused of mismanaging the ambulance service, but now they’ll be able to pay their staff a better wage.

Joel Benz, TRAA’s executive director

Wednesday, the TRAA board approved a $5 raise for paramedics and EMTs, bringing salaries up to $24 an hour and $19 an hour, respectively. The 12 specialized dispatchers will also get a $2 an hour raise to bring their salaries to $21.25 an hour, Joel Benz, paramedic and TRAA executive director, said.

Employees who stuck it out during the months of the pandemic will receive a $1,000 bonus, Benz said.

With the hope of better pay and better hours, TRAA is up to 62 employees with the goal of hiring 80, so that response times can improve along with morale. Three are currently being hired and there are eight in the “earn to learn” class that pays $11 while the candidates are in training, Benz said.

“We felt like we could do a good job of managing,” Benz said Wednesday. With the help of an outside consulting firm, WASHKO, out of New York, the transition has been smooth and somewhat typical these days of non-profit ambulance authorities giving the boot to outside for-profit contractors, Benz added.

The raises will be paid out of TRAA’s $14 million budget, although TRAA had discussions with the city and county about getting public money to assist in the salary boost.

“Pay has been a huge factor,” Benz said last year as he prepared to lead TRAA. “Our paramedics were some of the lowest paid in the state.” Efforts to encourage the contractor to increase pay weren’t successful.

The contractor was PatientCare EMS Solutions based in Tyler, Texas.

“We did a rate survey for the region. We looked at the surrounding communities, hospitals, fire departments, regional (departments) and Indianapolis, . Then we also looked at public utility models that are doing the same thing that we’re doing.  We also looked externally, kind of what’s going on,” Benz said. 

”We just felt like in order to compete in the market, we felt like $5 an hour was a pretty substantial wage increase, but also needed for our folks.  We want to increase retention. We want to make sure it’s a career, more so than it has been. So by increasing the wage we feel like we can retain people.  We have other incentives that we’re going to do also.”

Compliance, which was an issue working under the contractor, will improve as staffing grows, Benz said. TRAA needs to answer 90% of its calls to be in compliance.

“We are not at 90% and won’t be until we get enough staff on the streets,” Benz, 42, said.

Benz emphasized the general public will see little change and soon, improvements in service.

“It’s important for people to understand. It’s the same people doing the same thing and the same trucks. There’s no difference in response. There’s no difference in who’s coming to help you. We’re working toward a solution.”

He is thankful for the employees who stuck through the process.

“I would say ‘thank you to the folks who have been here’,” Benz said. Last summer, TRAA had 46 employees. “This process has not been an easy transition. There’s been a lot of work that goes in to it and a lot of uncertainty, but folks have continued to do the job everyday that they need to do to take care of people and they’ve been through a pandemic at this point. They’ve been through some major transitions and they’re still out there doing a great job, providing quality service every single one of them.”

With Wednesday’s news, TRAA field paramedic Adam Jackson said it is a move in the right direction.

“It’s very significant. When I first started at TRAA my pay was significantly lower and it was hard to support a family. It was very hard to support a family and now with a pay increase I think that’s a great move,” Jackson said.

Jackson adds that he hopes it helps out his hardworking coworkers.

“I know that there’s nobody that puts on that uniform or jumps in that ambulance that is not giving 110%,” Jackson said.