SOUTH WHITLEY — “For those of you who know me, I’m usually a quiet guy,” said councilman Randy Cokl at a special South Whitley Town Council meeting June 15.
“But tonight, I’m angry.”
South Whitley Town Council held the special public meeting to discuss the history of its push to allow Lutheran Emergency Medical Service to station an ambulance in South Whitley. Both Whitley County Commissioners George Schrumpf and Thomas Western were invited. Schrumpf had a prior committment, and Western didn’t respond to Cokl’s invitation.
Cokl led the meeting and invited attendees to close their eyes.
“With your eyes closed, imagine someone you love in need of an ambulance,” he said.
The room sat in silence for two minutes.
“Two minutes is a long time. Five minutes is an eternity. Thirteen minutes is the national standard to which our current EMS provider responds with care,” he said.
The town of South Whitley’s current strife stems from the perception of the Parkview ambulance that is supposed to be located in South Whitley. Some residents and Cokl are disappointed with the infrequency with which they see the ambulance at its post. Residents report spotting it in Pierceton, North Manchester and even as far as Huntington.
On Monday, June 19, the County Commissioners heard from Cokl and Whitley County Sheriff Mark Gatton regarding the issue.
“I’m troubled that you didn’t have the time to attend and answer very important questions at this important meeting,” Cokl said.
Cokl highlighted several important questions brought up during Thursday’s meeting, which included the following: Why is the Sheriff being denied his right as an elected official to operate county dispatch? What is the difference between a five-year contract and a five-year extension? Does commissioner Schrumpf receive any payment from Parkview for his position on the board? Why was Commissioner Don Amber’s 30 years of experience with emergency medical service dismissed?
Before digging into these questions one by one, Amber made a motion to allow Lutheran EMS to dispatch through Whitley County’s dispatchers.
Commissioners Western and Schrumpf remained silent and the motion died.
A distraught crowd voiced its disconcert and disbelief as Gatton rose to offer his report.
“Today is a sad day to be a Whitley County resident,” he said, “especially to be a South Whitley resident. I’m here for public safety. I feel I wouldn’t be here today if things were done on a level playing field. I’d like to publicly apologize for not standing up when I saw things that were clearly conflict of interest in the contract meetings.
“I want to do what’s right so that I can look at myself in the mirror.”
Gatton had two requests for the commissioners. First, he wants the commissioners to look into a section in the current contract that gives Whitley County the right to give Parkview 180 days written notice of the contract’s termination. He encouraged them to open bids for the county.
“My second request is that we try to work together in the name of public safety.”
The frustration felt among South Whitley residents regarding the town’s emergency medical services situation began several years ago.
Whitley County had three Parkview EMS ambulances, stationed in Columbia City, Churubusco and South Whitley. It recently added another in Thorncreek Township. When one ambulance is called on a job the other two position themselves at Collins and halfway between Columbia City and South Whitley to split the difference and keep the county covered. If another ambulance is sent out while the one is still on its job, another moves to Columbia City to be central within the county.
The Columbia City ambulance is frequently used for inter-facility transfers between Parkview Whitley and Parkview Regional in Fort Wayne, Cokl described, limiting the ambulances available.
In January 2012, Cokl said he “reached out to the commissioners and was concerned with how little the ambulance was in town.” He suspected that the inter-facility transfers were having an impact on the availability of ambulances in the county.
In May 2016, the commissioners agreed to extend Whitley County’s contract with Parkview EMS, with the request that they consider a dedicated transfer vehicle to ease the burden on the Columbia City ambulance. But that didn’t come without pushback by Commissioner Amber, who asked his fellow commissioners to allow other entities to bid on the service.
In 2016, Amber spoke out about his concerns with Parkview’s service; however, Schrumpf and former Commissioner Tom Rethlake voted around Amber to proceed with the five-year contract extension.
Parties on both sides of the argument have discussed issues with conflicts of interest. Schrumpf serves on Parkview’s board as Whitley County’s representative. Western’s son-in-law works for Parkview, and Amber was fired from Parkview in 2010.
Additionally, Cokl is a full-time dispatcher for the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, and also was a paramedic for Parkview.
At the South Whitley meeting, Cokl read a letter he received from Schrumpf. It said, “The fact that all three Commissioners have ties to Parkview is representative of our commitment to Whitley County.”
The 911 process has also become an issue due to its inefficiency, Cokl described. Right now, when you call 911, this is what happens:
1. The call goes through to the local dispatcher, who gathers the name, phone number, address and the issue the person is calling about
2. The area dispatcher forwards the call on to Parkview EMS’s dispatcher
3. Parkview’s dispatcher gathers the name, phone number, address and information, then
4. Parkview dispatches an ambulance to assist.
This process can take several minutes from beginning to end, and all of that is before an ambulance is sent, Cokl says.
South Whitley’s proposal
In 2016, with the renewal of Whitley County’s contract with Parkview EMS, South Whitley Town Council reached out to Lutheran EMS with the intention of contracting an ambulance for the town and Cleveland Township.
The idea was that the Lutheran ambulance would be a supplement to Whitley County’s current system, not replace it.
As part of the proposal, the town opted to have the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department dispatch be responsible for sending out the Lutheran ambulance. Local dispatchers, Cokl argues, would be more effective in the rural areas around South Whitley.
“County dispatchers know local landmarks,” he said.
Locally-based volunteer personnel would assist two full-time Lutheran paramedics.
Indiana State Code 16-31-5-1 says that “the governing body of a city, town, township, or county by the governing body’s action or in any combination may… establish, operate and maintain emergency medical services.” State Representative Judy read this at Thursday’s meeting to emphasize that South Whitley is acting within its rights.
It also has the endorsement of Sheriff Gatton, who said, “I support Lutheran Whitley EMS and have the ability to dispatch.”
Lutheran Whitley EMS will also cost “not 1 cent to taxpayers,” said Cokl.
Parkview is willing to dispatch the Lutheran ambulance within South Whitley, but Cokl and the town want the ambulance dispatched through the sheriff’s department.
“I just don’t understand how county dispatch, which does every other emergency service, cannot dispatch to South Whitley,” Gatton said.
Subsections A and B of the above Indiana Code effectively state that a town cannot instate contracted emergency medical services outside the limits of the town without the consent of the county, and the same is true in reverse.
“As a state representative, it is my duty to make sure nobody dies due to a lack of service,” Judy said. “I like to see local issues resolved locally, but I’ll step in if necessary.”
In response to a question from the public, Schrumpf assured that the Commissioners, “are going to look at this a little differently now.”
The Commissioners agreed to consider the issue and give it due diligence, and anticipated that they will have an answer within 60 days.
Cokl encourages any upset or disgruntled South Whitley residents to attend Commissioners meetings on the first and third Mondays of the month at 1 p.m. in the Whitley County Government building to have a continued presence until the issue is resolved.
For more of the history of EMS in Whitley County, see this article published in 2016 in the Churubusco News: http://busconews.com/countycommishclashes/