FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — For the first time since the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority (TRAA) fell out of compliance due to long response times, officials spoke to the Fort Wayne City Council on the ongoing issue.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, TRAA Executive Director Gary Booher, I.A.E.P. Local 525 union president Ian Case and chief operations officer for TRAA Mike Bureau sat in front of the council to answer questions and talk about solutions to the agencies ongoing issues.
“I think we do have a problem,” said local I.A.E.P President of 525 Ian Case said. “It’s not just a local problem but also a national problem with staffing and reimbursements.”
Since August 2020, the ambulance service has been out of compliance because of long response times. The average response time to a scene is 6 minutes and 18 seconds – longer than the industry standards. The cause of the slower run times is the increase in calls and the shortage of paramedics and EMTs.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, Councilman Russ Jehl stated that according to the data given to the council from TRAA, one in every four calls asking for help is not being answered in a timely fashion.
Paramedics and EMTs who have spoken with WANE 15 describe the situation as “life or death.” Several say they respond to 10-22 calls during a 12-hour shift. During that shift, the medical professionals say they barely have time to eat, use the restroom or catch a breath.
Due to the shortage, the union and TRAA agreed to increase wages, offering triple overtime and offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus for any new paramedic joining the system, according to the letter. However, according to employees, the average starting pay for an EMT is $14.50 and the starting pay for a paramedic is $19.50. Employee burnout has also stretched the agency to nearly half the staff needed to run safely and functionally.
TRAA employees say thanks to public pressure, the city council, and the recent news coverage they are hopeful that the situation will improve. However, several current TRAA employees choose not to speak in fear of losing their jobs.
On Tuesday night, WANE asked TRAA officials if current employees would be fired or let go for speaking out, and were told “no.” Soon after two current employees, a paramedic, and an EMT spoke out to WANE 15.
“Our only complaint is how many we take care of,” said advanced EMT Brandi Bowers. “We wish it was divided up. We understand that that is not possible. We will gladly take care of anybody and everybody that calls 911. It just gets to you mentally and physically running for 12 hours doing anywhere from 10 to 22 runs. You never know what you are going to come into and what you are going to leave with.”
“I myself had a 24 minute response time on one of the life-threatening calls today which if that was my family member I would be upset about,” said paramedic April Gregg. “Rightfully so. We can only do what we can do as far as the paramedics and my coworkers go.”
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, several other current and former TRAA employees spoke out asking and thanking the council for help.
One TRAA employee spoke out against the 24 minutes run Gregg had earlier Tuesday. His argument was that if it took a Fort Wayne Police officer 24 minutes to get to a shooting or took 24 minutes for the Fort Wayne Fire Department to get to a fire the city would be “upset” and “immediately demand change.”
But what can be done to fix TRAA’s issues? Officials have several ideas.
“That is improving pay and benefits, that is finding more individuals that are willing to come into the paramedic service,” Case said. “And improving relations.”
TRAA Executive Director Gary Booher also announced to the council the ambulance service is moving into a tiered system, meaning not every ambulance will have paramedics. Which ambulance and which medical professional is sent where would be prioritized their Advanced Life Support units (ALS) for life threatening emergency responses only and using Basic Life Support (BLS) units for other calls.
“The theory is that not every ambulance, or not every ambulance call requires a paramedic unit,” Booher said. “So we are trying to give current relief to our current medic staff who are overworked.”
Booher’s example during the council meeting was that if you have a broken arm you wouldn’t go to your cardiologist. You would go to your local primary care provider. It would be the same for a call.
The basic difference between EMTs and paramedics lie within their education. EMTs can administer CPR, glucose, and oxygen, paramedics can perform more complex procedures such as inserting IV lines and administering drugs.
Gregg, a paramedic says she understands the need to have basic trucks for basic needs however, she believes that everyone deserves the best care.
“In regards to broken arms and cardiologists, you still want your family taken care of,” Gregg said. “Those things still require pain medications. It’s not an easy thing to deal with and I want everyone to get the best level of care.”
Several council members are pushing for a change. They want relief for TRAA paramedics and reduce response times. Councilman Russ Jehl has been leading the charge, calling on officials with TRAA to discuss the situation with the council.
“If we declare an emergency and only make a change and see how it works that’s really not taking the emergency seriously,” Jehl said. “The fact that there are paramedics who have left TRAA that are still willing to come back on a part-time basis having them bared and not able to come back just didn’t make sense.”
After tonight Both Bowers and Gregg are hopeful that change will be coming in the near future and officials with TRAA also agree.
“I do understand what it’s like being on the street and I am as supportive as ever as I absolutely can be of the situation they are,” Booher said. “We won’t stop working to find a solution.”
TRAA officials are expected back in front of the city council with an update in the next four to six weeks to discuss their progress.