City ambulance not in the cards
Staffing issues holding up progress; mayor says he doesn’t know why
The citizens of Kokomo have demanded ambulance service from the Kokomo Fire Department from the very moment it was eliminated in 2008. When Mayor Tyler Moore took office, he did so with the promise that the ambulance would return.
That hasn’t happened. It likely won’t happen this year. And the reason for the delay seems completely controllable by the Moore administration. It’s manpower. The fire department has 89 firefighters budgeted for 2022; the same number it had in 2021. At the same time, the department incurred $1.2 million in overtime expenses.
Local hospitals and volunteer departments have been asked to shoulder the burden since Kokomo ended its ambulance service
Restarting an ambulance service would only increase that expense, Moore said.
“They have a truck equipped and ready to go,” said Moore. “We were going to do a trial period this first quarter. But the only way we can provide the service is through scheduled overtime. As we ended 2021 and had to appropriate more than $1 million in overtime, and knowing the only way to staff the ambulance is with scheduled overtime, I said hold up. Let’s take a step back.”
Mothballing the trial run didn’t sit well with the firefighters. Dan Guffey, president of Fire Fighters Local 396, said the need for an ambulance is undeniable. He cited the social media hashtag #NoMedicAvailable as ongoing proof. He doesn’t accept the delay.
“This community has a need for us to be in the ambulance business,” said Guffey. “The number of emergency runs that are having to be handled by outside agencies is staggering. The need is there, but it seems like there are outside forces keeping us out.
“It feels like they are kicking the can. It is amazing to me that we can’t get the city council, the mayor, the fire department administration, and the union in a room together and reach a consensus.”
Instead of hiring more firefighters or starting an ambulance service, the city chose to commission a study of the fire department’s needs. That $65,000 study should be completed by spring, and the mayor is hopeful that he will have a clearer picture of what is needed.
“Let’s see what the study shows us and put an intentional plan in place,” said Moore. “They are looking at every aspect of the fire department to see what efficiencies might be gained. It’s not just about ambulances. There are lot more concerns that we have within the fire department.”
Kokomo Fire Chief Chris Frazier agrees that the study will provide good insight, and he acknowledged that there were other obstacles beyond manpower that spelled doom for an ambulance trial run. Software necessary for tracking health information cannot be acquired and installed for 120 days. COVID has hit the department, further reducing staff.
“Our idea of doing a trial run from January to March got killed because of COVID and the supply chain,” said Frazier. “That’s why we pulled the plug. The biggest thing is we have to figure out the manpower. The reason we chose January for the trial run is because we usually have a couple extra people available. This year is not cooperating as we thought because of sickness.”
Moore agreed that staffing is a major obstacle. Fortunately, the pool of candidates for hiring has improved, he said, and that will come in handy when the department loses staff to retirement later this year. But why did the fire department stand pat with 89 firefighters in the 2022 budget? Why didn’t Frazier ask for more?
“Unfortunately, the budget the chief and the deputy chief presented still had a staffing level of 89,” said Moore. “They didn’t add more bodies. Hopefully, he will consider hiring two or three more near the end of the year and work that into the 2023 budget.”
Guffey disputed Moore’s assertion, claiming that Frazier actually did ask for more staffing in the 2022 budget.
“He asked for more, but he was told to stick to 89, so he changed the budget to fit and asked to fill other needs,” said Guffey. “I have been critical of Chief Frazier because I know him, and I know his heart. So, I expect more from him. But I know he wants to do what is right.”
Moore claims that he was not part of the discussion when it came to building the fire department’s budget. He didn’t know what was in it.
“I don’t know if it was an oversight, if they walked in asking for 95 and had it whittled down,” said Moore. “I’ve told them they could run the department how they wished. They would need 7-8 additional firefighters to operate the ambulance. I guess I was surprised how it shook down that they only submitted a budget for 89 firefighters as opposed to more.”
Frazier declined to comment on how his department reached the conclusion to ask for no new bodies in the 2022 budget. But he did explain that he sought other funding sources to increase manpower.
“We put in for 13 firefighters in a SAFER grant last year, but we didn’t get it,” said Frazier. “That would have put us at 102; that’s the big goal. The grant can bridge the gap between where we’re at and where we want to be.”
Frazier is committed to applying for the grant again in 2022, hoping for a better outcome. But Moore admitted there could have been more money available to the department for hiring. However, he said he didn’t mandate anything in the budget. So, did the mayor simply hope that his department heads would fulfill his campaign promises for him?
“Correct,” said Moore. “I would hope that we are all part of a team, and that they share the vision of working toward bringing a few more firefighters back. If we are working toward that, we needed to get them to agree to the vision.”
Guffey doesn’t see it as the fire department and its administration failing to agree to the vision. He sees it as the same old, same old politics that have dominated the city of Kokomo for decades.
“I have nothing bad to say about the people in the administration,” said Guffey. “They’re good people, but they have become politicians. Our membership is tired of being stepped over by administration after administration. I know they can’t correct all the problems, but I’d like to see them at least move forward. I don’t think the mayor hates us. We’re just a problem he doesn’t want to deal with. That means it’s going to get public and personal.”
that LLC you awarded those demo contracts to, have not paid their taxes since 2010 by the way
record amounts in the coffer?