FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — At Tuesday’s Fort Wayne City Council meeting, an organization not on the agenda received praise.
“TRAA (Three Rivers Ambulance Authority) is on the right track, they are doing everything they promised you, that Joel Benz has promised you he would do. He’s fulfilling all those commitments, he’s increased pay, he’s increased benefits, he’s increased staffing,” said Fort Wayne Fire Chief Eric Lahey.
It’s a much different tone than has been heard in Citizen’s Square when looking at TRAA’s past and its former leadership.
“You clearly are putting the needs of those that are in an emergency situation as the last priority, and your own selfish interests first,” said 2nd district Councilman Russ Jehl in 2021.
Jehl was addressing former TRAA executive director, Garry Booher.
Under Booher, TRAA was not meeting goals, and leaving some 911 calls with slow response time.
At a city council meeting addressing the slow response time and lack of staffing in 2021, Council members showed concern.
“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,” Jehl said.
At a meeting the following week, a TRAA employee weighted in on slow response time with a personal story.
“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.”
In the middle of the mess, Booher resigned early on Oct. 1, 2021, and TRAA appointed Joel Benz to fill his position.
“That was a dark time in our history … we’re here to serve and we felt like we weren’t able to do that,” Benz said.
Benz, who had worked at TRAA and in Fort Wayne for 20 years, knew the challenges and solution immediately: wages.
“There’s a reason why across the nation there is a shortage of EMT’s and paramedics, they have traditionally been way underpaid,” Benz said.
Benz knew that meant a few things. First, TRAA changed how it operated by dropping its contractor, doing things in-house and managing the people and the ambulance operation.
“Now, we have a lot more autonomy and ability to make real changes immediately,” Benz said.
One of those changes was pay, and Benz committed to paying better wages in order to be better staffed and ultimately respond to 9-1-1 calls more consistently.
“The starting wage was about $15 per hour, so we raised that 30%. We increased our benefits and made a lot of changes for our EMTs and paramedics also,” Benz said.
Although the decision fulfilled Benz’s vision, it also left TRAA with a new problem.
“We knew that that was going to come at a cost. We knew that you know, moving forward, we were going to be underwater and we have been,” Benz said.
Coming into this year, Benz was expecting to be operating at a nearly $2 million deficit.
“We expected to be about $1.7 million underwater at this point. And we’re more or less at a break-even point. And so that’s a significantly better picture than you know I was facing at the beginning of the year,” Benz said.
Benz credits clever cost-saving techniques and grant money, but also the city and those around him.
“I was fortunate that I had a lot of support from the mayor, from city council, and from our board,” Benz said.
City Council offered TRAA up to $3 million to help bail them out earlier this year, and TRAA has been able to manage without it, and at this point is only expected to dip into, at most, $1 million of it.
That $1 million will be used to offer current employees bonuses to keep them on staff, something that Benz says is an ongoing process so TRAA doesn’t throw away all the progress they’ve made so far under his tenure.
“We have taken so many steps forward, we do not want to take steps backward at this point,” Benz said.