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Sedgwick County to begin search for new EMS director

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 1:29 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The Sedgwick County EMS Director is out. The shake-up comes after two years of employee complaints about leadership. Other issues involved concerns about response times or the time it takes for an ambulance to respond to a call.

Sedgwick County will also dissolve the merger of the EMS and Office of the Medical Director, which oversees pre-hospital care provided by EMS, fire and police and the state requires that oversight. The two merged in 2019.

There will now be a search for new directors for both of those departments.

“The first thing we will have to do is, as soon as possible, get an interim director in place. I haven’t given a timeline to that because I want to talk to employees before we name who that person is,” said Tom Stolz, Sedgwick County Manager.

County manager Tom Stolz said the main goal is to stabilize and rebuild morale in EMS so it can continue to serve the community.

On Wednesday, Stolz said he understands there was some frustration that the county wasn’t acting quickly enough. He said with a matter like this; it was important to take time and investigate before making a decision.

“People ask, why do you discuss personnel matters in public, and there’s two reasons. It’s not moral and ethical to cause an investigation is just that we’re trying to find facts. We’re trying to determine who did what. We’re trying to hear from all sides,” Stolz said.

“Also, if you do, do it, and people get losses or damages then they can sue the county, so part of me looks out for the county’s taxpayer to make sure we are minimizing damages.”

In 2019, the county merged EMS and OMD following a year-long process.

“The physician-led model made sense to us; it made sense to me. I was very enthusiastic, I’ll be honest, because I saw a way to take care of two things immediately. Number one, what EMS does today and what they did 20 years ago is vastly different,” said Stolz. “They are giving clinical care in people’s living rooms now. To me, it made sense to have a physician lead that organization because it’s just so heavily clinical now.”

The other reason was to streamline the work of the clinical and operational needs.

“Some employees that were disgruntled because they thought it was a system of cultural bias as any organization or any department, so we saw a way to do these two important things to merge services, gain efficiency and to bring in a new perspective. That’s why we ended going to it.

“I’ve been part of three previous merges (of internal governmental departments), and in every one of them, employees and stakeholders, whether it’s employees or citizens, they’re very concerned about change. They’re very concerned about a new model. The paramedics and EMTs were very concerned about it back in 2019. That is the truth. We had meetings, and we talked about it. The doctors and the hospitals, the citizens that we talk to, they saw value in this physician-led, so as we move forward, it was not with the goal of not listening to EMS employees,” explained Stolz.

“We were hoping that a professional leader and a professional staff would work through difficulties because that is what I saw in the other mergers that I had done. It didn’t happen in this one. At the end of the day, it is the manager’s responsibility, it is the leader’s responsibility to bridge those gaps and make that merger work, and it didn’t happen here. Now I listen to the employees, and what they want is two separate models. We’ll go back that way, and we’ll work hard to minimize that conflict. Get a good director that can come in and work with whoever the physician is on the medical director side.”

Stolz said it wasn’t until last April 2021 he received the first in-person complaint made by EMS staff as they gather for a meeting on the department’s management.

“I head from the employees on the 26th (of April) and the 28th. A lot of it was just we don’t like him. I appreciate that, but there was a lot of tangible information that was put out during those meetings, which I took notes on. Those are the things that we probed and explored,” he said.

From there, Stolz moved forward with an investigation, including bringing in an outside firm. Stolz said he didn’t want to make any decisions until he had their findings. Stolz said there was enough concern to lead to taking action.

On Friday, he decided to begin making these changes to EMS and OMD. He started Monday by placing Dr. John Gallagher on paid administrative leave. He was serving as the director for both of the departments, OMD since 2015 and EMS since 2019.

Because this is a personnel issue, Stolz said he couldn’t go into details, but the county and Dr. Gallagher will work through a reconciliation deal to determine his status with the county.

Stolz said the county’s next step is to chart a path forward as they return to the original model.

“I apologize that our model didn’t work. We were honestly trying to do the best we could for the community. We saw this as taking really good service to another level, to get them the training they needed, to get them the support that they needed. It failed, and I’m sorry for that, and I hope that they hang with us,” said Stolz.

Stolz said EMS staff will be a part of the effort to select the next director of EMS.

It’s not just leadership but staffing that needs to be addressed. The department currently has 21 openings, which leaves the department operating at a roughly 80 percent staffing level.

“We have to stabilize. I want us to stabilize. I’m hoping that we can retain what we have. I’m hoping that a few people may consider coming back, and I’m hoping that we get kids coming out of school that wants to come to Sedgwick County to work. Hopefully, in the next, two three, four months, we can get seven, eight, nine paramedics back,” said Stolz.

A situation like this Stolz said leads to situations where all available ambulances are on calls. As new calls come in, they’re placed on hold until an ambulance unit is available.

Part of how the county is working to address staffing is by increasing pay in next year’s budget plan. The county is also considering signing bonuses for several public safety departments and other incentives.

The county manager said some other steps the county will take is to create a citizen review and advisor board for EMS.

“Made up of professionals in the system of medical care and management. It will include doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, firefighters potentially.” Stolz said, “I want just a couple of citizens on there too that can look at it from an outside view.”

The county is also preparing to roll out a new policy for communicating and resolving workplace issues brought by county employees.

“A policy where if your work environment isn’t quite right, if your supervisors aren’t treating you quite right, operationally things aren’t going quite right, there’s a system you can go through with peer employees from around the organization to conflict resolve whatever the matter is before it escalates,” said Stolz.

Stolz said this would be for all employees and hopes to have a draft to the board next month.

Coming out of COVID, Stolz said management staff would also be going out into the field to interface more directly with employees.

Of course, this is an issue that has brought with it public concern as EMS’s ability to respond can be a matter of life and death.

“I’ve had a number of people email me and, at the end of the day, want it fixed, and I don’t blame that; that’s the bottom line. They want police services, they want EMS services, they want when they call 911, they want the phone picked up. On the EMS end, we’re hoping a change of leadership will send a message we take this seriously,” said Stolz. “It’s a big step to take. They’re getting service out there right now, but I will tell you, our people are stretched thin.”

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