Fort Wayne's ambulance service has been handling an emergency of its own recently.
New Executive Director Joel Benz seems to have Three Rivers Ambulance Authority headed in a better direction, but there's still a need for a deeper look at TRAA's structure and business plan. Critics have long suggested there are more efficient ways to organize ambulance service.
Response times had been lengthening for more than a year. Called to account by City Council last summer, ambulance authority officials blamed staffing shortages and promised to do more to bring the numbers into contract compliance.
But it became clear during a subsequent September council meeting that the ambulance authority had made little progress. The it's-hard-to-find-workers excuse has become familiar to council members from their long struggle with Red River Waste Solutions over inconsistencies in city garbage pickup.
Particularly incensed was Councilman Russell Jehl, R-2nd, who called TRAA's performance “disgusting.”
The council's concern was valid. EMTs and paramedics worked long hours and area fire departments routinely stepped in to back up TRAA in an attempt to ensure the authority's staffing shortages and slower response times did not endanger those in need of emergency services. But it is easy to imagine situations developing that would make uncollected trash seem minor.
Gary Booher, the authority's executive director since 1989, was slated to retire at year's end. After the contentious council meeting, Booher moved up the date to Oct. 1 and announced he'd be on vacation till then.
To its credit, the TRAA board of directors quickly hired Benz, a longtime paramedic who has served well on the Allen County Council, to fill Booher's post.
Since then, things have started to turn around.
At his first meeting with the City Council earlier this month, Benz reported that response times had at least stabilized and listed several moves designed to increase full- and part-time staffing over the next few months. He seems to be making efforts to communicate more effectively with TRAA's staff and with the fire departments that have had the authority's back.
He also needs to keep the City Council and the Allen County Commissioners apprised of what's happening so they won't be surprised if problems arise.
Over the longer term, the authority's almost four-decade-old business model merits serious scrutiny. TRAA is a public, nonprofit agency that reports to a separate, publicly appointed board, contracts with a Texas- and Georgia-based company to provide services and derives its revenue from its patients, not from taxes. That ostensibly saves public money, but it sometimes insulates the operation from needed scrutiny.
A few years ago, a proposal to transfer ambulance services to the Fort Wayne Fire Department fell through. But there may be other ways to make the service more accountable.
Benz, a leader who understands paramedicine and local government, may be just the person to lead the community toward a more efficient emergency-medical system.