TRAA facing ‘life or death situation’ as paramedics ask City Council for help

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Over the past few months, the lack of paramedics has caused a strain for several agencies statewide. In Fort Wayne, one paramedic says the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority (TRAA) is at a breaking point.

“It has been non-stop,” said Jenise Danels, TRAA paramedic. “We are on track to double our runs with the least amount of staff as possible. Either we are on a run or moving post to post. We rarely have time for bathroom breaks, for food, and dispatch tries to accommodate but when 911 calls offensively we go.”

TRAA is the City of Fort Wayne’s main ambulance service. However, the company also does runs in Allen County. There are other ambulance providers within the county, however, a majority of those are run by fire departments and depend on the township a resident lives in.

WANE 15 obtained letters from top TRAA officials recently given to Councilman Russ Jehl on just how short-staffed the ambulance provider is.

In a June letter to the councilman, TRAA Executive Director Gary Booher told the councilman that the “operations contractor has been out of compliance since August 2020” when staffing percentage dropped below 90%.

In early 2020, run volume dropped significantly and the decision was made by the operations contractor to reduce unit hours since the volume was slow. This caused some employees to look for “employment elsewhere.” Then the pandemic hit.

At the time there was a “minor shortage” according to Booher. The shortage started years prior to the pandemic and is a nationwide issue. However, due to the pandemic, the shortage increased.

Below are graphics that show not only the townships TRAA covers but also the number of calls crews have responded to since January 2020.

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.

These incentives have not increased the number of people going into the profession, and TRAA is also seeing more paramedics leaving.

Danels worked at the ambulance authority for two years and is now leaving. During the Tuesday night Fort Wayne City Council meeting, Danels and other current and soon-to-be-former TRAA paramedics asked the council for help.

Danels’ last day at TRAA is this week and she will be transferred to another ambulance provider that not only pays six dollars more an hour but will also allow her to spend more time with her son.

Danels, who spoke with WANE 15 after the meeting, said paramedics were simply getting burned out because their days off were few and far between. She says there were even times she went as long as 18 days without a day off.

“I love my community, but I love my son,” Danels said. “In those two years, I have not seen my child. I’ve not seen him grow up. I had to make the hard decision, just recently, to either stay at TRAA and my community or to pick my son.”

Data from TRAA show that between August 2020 and May 2021, the Allen County ambulance providers were requested to respond to the city an average of 25 times each month. The months of April and May have been the most significant and increased the average.

TRAA responds outside of the city and into the county on average 67 times per month and transports an average of 29 patients per month. In May the compliance rate was 76% increasing the average response time by more than a minute.

The average response time to a scene is six minutes and 18 seconds. Higher than it has been in the past. From August of 2020 through May 2021 compliance was achieved one time and the average time during compliance was five minutes and 38 seconds.

After public comment concluded at Tuesday night’s Fort Wayne Council meeting, each council member expressed concerns over TRAA.

Second district councilman Russ Jehl offered two solutions the ambulance provide should look into: hiring part-time employees and looking to the American Rescue Plan Act funds to give employees hazard pay. The city is set to receive more than $50 million in federal relief pay and not all of it is accounted for.

At the end of the meeting, the council told the crowd they expect to see TRAA at the July 27 meeting at 5:30 p.m. at Citizens Square.

“We want to hear that the city administration, TRAA, and its labor partners are taking this seriously and that there are not just settling for one item, that they are being all solutions to the table,” Jehl said. “This is 10 months in the making, this slide, and tonight we’ve heard paramedics leaving and we need to address this with all solutions asap.”

In his letter to Jehl, Booher explained ideas that were already discussed:

  • The TRAA board could declare a ‘default.’ That would mean a new company could offer money and take over the services. However, Booher advised against it because the pool of paramedics is small.
  • Dissolving TRAA and having the Fort Wayne Fire Department take over ambulance services. However, this could render the same response due to limited staff.

At the end of 2021, Booher will be stepping down after 32 years of service. The TRAA Board of Directors has begun the process of looking for Booher’s successor but has not named a replacement.

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