Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday August 21st 2019


Opening EMS ‘Wound’

By Jeremy Morrison

After publicly peeling back another layer of Escambia County’s issues within its Public Safety Department, county commissioners decided May 16 to hold off on taking any further action concerning procuring training services for Emergency Medical Services personnel.

Commissioners had decided previously to move ahead with the EMS training at the urging of Medical Director Dr. Rayme Edler. The stall on training—coming as the county has just wrapped up an internal review of its Public Safety Department and as the Florida Department of Health continues its investigation of Escambia’s EMS—came after a citizen distributed an email exchange that revealed a conversation between EMS personnel regarding the “importance of not double assigning” and the “need to show a delay and need for more trucks.”

After glancing at the emails, most of the county commission seemed concerned.

“‘We need to show a delay’—what does that mean? What are we saying? Can someone answer that?” asked Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, quoting from the exchange. “This is a real problem, this email.”

Alarming, or Not at All?
The emails in question, distributed by Melissa Pino, involved a request from Mike Jenkins, head of Local 325, the county EMS and Paramedics union. In a March 29 email to former fire and EMS Chief Rusty Nail, Jenkins requested that the practice referred to as “double assigning”—during which an ambulance finishing up a call at a hospital will be directed to another call instead of returning to an assigned post and waiting for an incoming call—be curtailed. This double assigning practice, the union president contended, was obscuring the need for additional equipment.

Most of the Escambia commissioners expressed reservations about the notion of first responders, as Commission Chairman Lumon May put it, “purposefully taking their time or delaying.” May called it “alarming,” while Commissioner Steven Barry described it as “very troubling.”

There was, however, one exception—Commissioner Doug Underhill saw nothing improper in the emails.

“It’s not alarming at all,” Underhill said. “The alarming part is the double assigning.”

Underhill said that curbing the practice of double assigning would simply allow the department’s actual shortfalls to be evident and that currently, the practice was “covering up the costs of providing services.”

“The practice of double assigning would, in fact, hide the fact that you don’t have enough equipment on the street,” Underhill said, pointing to the recent internal review of the department that noted deficiencies in that area.

Commissioner Bergosh saw the matter completely opposite. He called the practice of double assigning “efficient” and a “smart solution.”

“Keeping running, keeping rolling,” Bergosh said.

Chairman May noted that double assigning was employed when other EMS units were unavailable to take incoming calls.

“It’s just when you have no one else available—someone’s been shot, someone’s dying, and no one else is available,” May said.

‘Let Me Explain’
Following the May 16 discussion between commissioners regarding the EMS emails stressing the need to “show a delay” to demonstrate the “need for more trucks,” Jenkins wrote a letter to commissioners addressing the matter.

“Let me explain my email,” Jenkins begins, before laying out an argument supporting the need for more EMS vehicles. Essentially restating at length the notion contained in his email, the union president maintained that when ambulances are “pulling into a hospital and get told that you need to get turned around quick … this is not demonstrating to commissioners the benefit and importance of having enough trucks on the road.”

Jenkins also pointed to the county’s recent internal review, which determined that EMS was running low on vehicles, while at the same time Escambia’s emergency call volume continued to grow. The north end of the county, he states, is in particularly dire straits, as there are times when a call from Century will get serviced out of the W Street area, 45 miles away.

After Jenkins sent his March 29 email, he said in his letter to commissioners that Weaver, the recently resigned public safety director, told him he would also send an accompanying graph detailing the number of times EMS did not meet their 10-minute response time goal.

“He showed me the graph he was sending and stated that the commissioners would have to see if they wanted to accept the risk of not getting ambulances to the citizens of Escambia County in a timely manner,” Jenkins wrote, adding that he did not know if the graph had been sent out.

Jenkins ended his letter by offering to meet with commissioners and explain his position further. Neither Jenkins nor Weaver responded to Inweekly’s requests to talk about this issue.

‘Let’s Just Open Up the Wound’
While the EMS union president was not present during the May 16 commission meeting, Nick Gradia, head of Escambia’s Professional Firefighter union, was in the room. At one point during the day’s conversation, Commissioner Barry asked Gradia if he felt the concept laid out in the email was appropriate.

“Have you ever written an email like that?” Barry said.

Gradia said that he had not and conceded that the email “sounds horrible” but also that he felt it was “taken out of context.” The union head told commissioners that he understood the desire to “show how bad things really are” and that it is a complicated issue and that “it’s very difficult to get into the intricacies of these things in this format.”

“It takes a lot more explanation than I can give you here today,” he said.

Earlier, during the commission’s public comment forum, Gradia had suggested that the commissioners call in all the various players in the continually unfolding and multi-layered drama of the Public Safety Department—Nail, Edler, Weaver and others—and have definitive discussions with each about the varying issues.

“Sit those folks down, and you’ll have your answers,” he had told them.

Gradia hit this note again during the discussion regarding the EMS emails just dropped on the commission.

“This mess is going to keep up, and there’s a lot of dirty laundry baskets that are going to make their way up here,” Gradia said.

By the end of the EMS discussion, May said he agreed with that sentiment. Before the decision to hold off on moving forward procuring EMS training, the chairman suggested that perhaps the commission should first dig into the issues regarding EMS instead of letting them leak slowly into public view during meetings and in the media.

“Stop putting a Band-Aid on it,” May said. “Let’s just open up the wound, clean it out, and see where we go.”