by Caitlin Huston
A Logansport woman with chest pains lay for 15 minutes on a backboard while the Rural Metro ambulance service tried to locate her house.
Four houses down, another patient waited an hour for the ambulance, after the ambulance had to double back after transporting the first patient to the hospital.
Another day, on Pleasant Hill, the ambulance never showed up.
In the year since Cass County switched ambulance services to Rural Metro, a privately-owned company, Logansport firefighters and emergency personnel said they’ve seen a deterioration of services, largely due to the ambulance crews getting lost and patients having to wait for ambulances that were coming from out of town. It’s a reality that the new management of Rural Metro is facing up to and trying to change.
“It was our fault,” said Jeff Slusser, northern Indiana operations manager. “We were bringing in crews from Lafayette who didn’t know the area.”
Cass County signed a five-year contract with Rural Metro starting April 2, 2012. The change meant that instead of ambulances run by Logansport Memorial Hospital and paid for by taxpayers and patients, the private company would run the service and collect payment only from the patients.
However, the Rural Metro management that took over last year is no longer in charge.
Slusser said he was appointed to the area in January after a management shift replaced many positions in the company, including corporate positions.
“We have new management from the corporate level in Indiana on down,” Slusser said.
He said one of the reasons for the shift in positions was because of the problems happening with the ambulance system in Cass County.
“I think the former management tried to put the urban model into place in a rural setting and it just doesn’t work,” Slusser said.
One of the primary issues in Cass County has been delays in emergency situations, according to E911 Director Dan McDonald.
McDonald said when there are three to four calls — a situation he says is not uncommon — it’s hard to get an ambulance to respond in a timely manner.
“There have definitely been times when we needed more ambulances,” McDonald said.
Rural Metro has two fully-staffed ambulances that operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week. They’re housed on Water Street in Logansport.
But, in the past, when those ambulances were out on runs, Slusser said Rural Metro would use ambulances and paramedics who had to drive from Lafayette on emergency calls.
Slusser agreed that the county’s limited number of ambulances and the drive time for out-of-county crews has been a problem.
“It’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge that I’m working to overcome,” Slusser said.
He’s since put a new system in place, so that the local ambulances are dispatched mainly for emergency situations, while the out-of-county ambulances are dispatched for non-emergency transfers from the hospital.
“We don’t bring those ambulances over for the coverage,” Slusser said. “We bring them over for the transfers.”
Slusser said he is also trying to provide extra coverage by using the Galveston volunteer ambulance service when needed.
The new system has improved response time, Slussser said, with an average of eight minutes for every run in March they made throughout Cass County.
Steve Williams, assistant fire chief at the Logansport Fire Department, also said he’s noticed that firefighters do not have to wait as long for the ambulances to arrive.
“I would say things are getting a little better on the times,” Williams said.
But he said there’s still the issue of ambulance crews getting lost.
“I know they’re still having problems finding locations of places and things like that,” Williams said.
Slusser said Rural Metro was previously operating using only a GPS system, but they’re now working with Cass County Dispatch to use their mapping technology.
He said the staff members also had trouble finding locations because Rural Metro was using crews from out of town. Slusser said he’s working to fix that by spreading out staff members familiar with the area among those who are not.
“It’s a work in progress,” Slusser said.
He added that they have about 60 percent of the same staff members that they had in 2012.
By making these changes, Logansport Fire Chief Mark Strong said he’s seen great improvement in the company’s communication and teamwork.
“Rural Metro seems to be improving,” Strong said.
Communication has also improved between Rural Metro and the Logansport Memorial Hospital, where there have been discussions about how to improve transitions from ambulance to the door.
“They seem to be responsive when we talk to them,” said Dave Ameen, hospital CEO.
But Strong still has his own ideas on improvement. When the county originally talked about switching to Rural Metro, Strong proposed creating his own ambulance service run by the firefighters who were also certified as EMTs and paramedics.
Strong said he’s still looking into the cost of buying new or used ambulances and has talked with the hospital about extra supplies they have. But the startup cost is high, Strong said, so he’d like to start slowly and first work alongside Rural Metro to offer ambulance service when they’re busy.
“I feel we need to take baby steps,” Strong said.
Slusser said he would be open to working with local partners.
“It’s not a competition,” Slusser said. “It’s about the people.”
That includes hiring on more local people when there are openings in Cass County, he said.
“Every time I have an opening my first reaction is going to be to hire local people who are qualified,” Slusser said.
By working with local people, Slusser said he’s also working to improve what he feels has been their biggest obstacle — their perception as “outsiders.”
“I think the perception that we fight is that we’re not an ambulance service, we’re just a business,” Slusser said.
And by changing people’s attitudes about their company, Slusser said he believes the company will succeed.
“My method of success is we do the right thing, we take care of the patients,” Slusser said.
Caitlin Huston is a staff reporter of the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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