Thursday, October 20, 2011

Farewell to Air Com

For just under a year, I worked at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction as a Communications Specialist in their telephone office, known as "PBX" to those familiar with the hospital's operations.

The dedicated staff of that stuffy, windowless room, some of whom have been there for over 25 years, also took on the duties of receiving requests and coordinating the helicopter and fixed wing resources of what is now called St. Mary's CareFlight. The flight program, originally called Air Life, changed names when the hospital switched aircraft and maintenance vendors from Englewood-based Air Methods to Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI). "St. Mary's Air Com" was the telephone and radio voice of the program.

One of the toughest calls I have ever had to make as a communications professional was to St. Mary's on February 28, 2001. I had to inform them that a helicopter had crashed in the Whitewater area, and knowing that their ship was out on a maintenance test flight at the time, could they check it's status? The voice on the radio repeatedly trying to reach CareFlight afterward, without success, still resonates with me. The program lost a pilot in the crash.

As of today, St. Mary's Air Com has gone silent. As Paul Shockley reports in today's Daily Sentinel, the hospital elected to outsource its communications needs to a communications center in Phoenix operated by PHI.

St. Mary's VP for PR Dan Prinster is quoted in the story as stating that the ability for PBX to answer CareFlight calls was somehow impacted by the operators being "
barraged by a lot of other calls". Having been in the room for a year, I'd have to agree and disagree with that statement. The PBX workstations and job assignments were set up so that the operator handling CareFlight would typically be the last to answer other phone lines, and could take themselves out of the call distribution queue when a flight request was in process.

This being said, the hospital apparently could not justify setting up a separate communications center that could handle CareFlight and other hospital resources such as Security and Engineering. As a result, you have what happened today.

This practice has become somewhat of a trend in the air medical industry. Air Methods operates a communications center in Omaha, Nebraska that handles requests and aircraft coordination for numerous flight programs across the country. I was offered a position there in 2010, but turned it down. I wasn't ready to move yet, and got a local job offer that made more sense at the time.

This trend has affected air medical operations in my the area of my new home as well. Pittsburgh-based STAT Medevac, which started with one aircraft in 1985, now coordinates 17 aircraft across 4 states and Washington DC from one communications center here. Air Evac Lifeteam, which operates and coordinates nearly 100 aircraft from headquarters in Missouri, has a ship in East Liverpool, Ohio and 4 aircraft based across West Virginia.

Is this a good trend? I believe it depends on the nature of the flight program. Some hospital-based air medical programs have re-engineered their communication centers into "transfer centers" that can act as a one-call destination for outlying facilities needing to get a patient accepted by a physician, transported, and admitted to a facility capable of providing more specialized care. The flight program I worked for in the 80's and 90's is an example of this model.

As much as I feel for the "Comm Specs" at St. Mary's Air Com, I did not believe that their operation was sustainable in this operational climate. That's why I sought to attend a school that would certify me for more complex work with aircraft of all types, and left St. Mary's in pursuit of that.

Two years ago I was in San Jose for the annual conference of the leading trade group for the air medical industry. Ironically, October 19 marked the conclusion of this year's conference in St. Louis, and along with it the end of an all too short tenure for a small center and a dedicated group of communicators.

Best wishes to those impacted by the closing.

Have a good weekend ahead.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Station 138 - An Unfair Farewell

Edgeworth Press Release re Edgeworth Vol Fire Dept De-Certification

With this rather concisely-worded release, Edgeworth Borough announced to the press a week ago that it had de-certified its volunteer fire department, and intends to contract with the Cochran Hose Co. of Sewickley for fire protection services forthwith.

When I wrote in July about the need to have conversations concerning the most effective way to provide public safety services, I didn't think that more change would be this soon in occurring, or in a manner that raised more questions than answers.

Judging from the reaction of Fire Chief Tim Scott in the Sewickley Patch story on the subject, those discussions did not involve him or anyone with his department. My initial reaction was that Chief Scott made it sound as if he and his fellow firefighters had been blindsided.

I made some initial comments on the Patch story that reflected my feelings at the time, including:
It appears to me based on this report that Borough Council and manager (Marty) McDaniel have some madness to their methods.
After delving into the situation some more, I think some modification of this stance is in order. The manner in which this action was taken, and subsequently reported to citizens, raises more questions about the borough's methods and motive.

For those who value transparency in government, answers to these and other questions are essential to gain an understanding of how tax dollars are being spent, and how effectively citizens are being served.

What We've Got Here Is...Failure to Communicate

Clearly, some discussion had to take place within the walls of the Edgeworth Borough Hall before a decision like this could be served up to Borough Council and voted through - unanimously. What was the rationale behind this decision, and the manner in which it was carried out?

Edgeworth Borough manager Marty McDaniel was willing to speak with me this past Wednesday. He wanted to make clear that the fire department was a separate entity, independent of the borough itself.

When asked if the borough had approached the fire department about their concerns and the possibility of consolidation with a neighboring department, Mr. McDaniel stated that the subject had not really been broached. With regard to consolidation, he added that "most of these groups aren't really interested in talking about it".

I asked Mr. McDaniel if the borough had ever told the fire department something to the equivalent of "improve service by a certain deadline date, or else". He stated that no such action had been taken.

When asked to comment about Chief Scott's response to the borough's action, Mr. McDaniel stated, "No one likes to be fired". He added, "3 guys showing up for a fire call just wasn't cutting it".

Mr. McDaniel also stated that among the factors that precipitated the borough's decision were concerns on the part of insurers that provide homeowners coverage to borough residents, as expressed through the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule of the Insurance Service Office (ISO). The single-digit ISO Rating is a factor in determining premiums for homeowners insurance in many areas, but its use and significance are changing with some insurers in many states, including Pennsylvania.

Mr. McDaniel stated that Cochran Hose's two pumpers (fire engines that primarily pump water) as opposed to Edgeworth's one may give the borough an improved ISO rating of 5 instead of the current 6.

With regard to the two Edgeworth fire vehicles, both owned by the borough, Mr. McDaniel stated that no specific plans were currently in place as to their sale or other uses.

I then spoke with Chief Tim Scott on Thursday. He and Mr. McDaniel appear to be in agreement on two things:

1. Up until just before the council meeting, there was no prior notice to the fire department of the borough's intended action.

2. The borough made no notification to the department that they were not
performing to the borough's expectations.

Chief Scott stated he was out of town for the meeting with council that occurred immediately prior to the public meeting. The fire department board of directors, which includes one line officer, was present when the word was delivered.

Chief Scott also stated that the fire department still exists as an organization, even if it is not providing fire protection services. While the borough owns the fire trucks, the department owns the ancillary equipment, such as SCBAs, radios, bunker gear, etc. In addition, the department has obligations to its life members to provide insurance, as well as accountability for money received under the state relief fund program.

The department's membership will meet this month to discuss the future, and their immediate plans.

Chief Scott also said he was interested to learn the terms of the proposed agreement with Cochran Hose Company. When asked if his department had any formal agreement with the borough for services, one that would define a time frame for notification by either party to end the agreement, the chief stated they did not.

The minutes of the Sept. 20 meeting will not be available until approved by council at their next meeting on October 18, which is also when council is slated to formalize their relationship with the Cochran Hose Co. According to the borough office, the proposed ordinance that would formalize that relationship is slated to be published this week.

Cochran Hose Chief Jeff Neff, reached on Sunday, would not discuss any specifics regarding his agency and Edgeworth Borough, referring me back to Mr. McDaniel's office. He did cite the trend in the local area of several volunteer fire departments disbanding, or being de-certified by their municipality. Chief Neff mentioned the Guyasuta Fire Department in O'Hara Township as a recent example.

At least Guyasuta VFD got 90 days notice. Edgeworth VFD got about an hour.

Where Was the Media?

The decision to decertify the fire department was made at the September 20th Council meeting. The file tag on the press release is dated Sept. 23, and the release appeared to have been sent out on Monday, the 26th.

Subsequent reporting on Sewickley Patch and the Sewickley Herald website on Tuesday the 27th, almost one week after the fact, appears to be the first media coverage of any kind regarding this change. That's a travesty.

Sewickley Patch Editor Larissa Dudkiewicz told me that she was at the beginning of the meeting, which involved the approval of a contract with Duquesne Light for a controversial power line project. She then had to leave early.

There is no indication that anyone from the Sewickley Herald, Allegheny Times, or other local media was present for any discussion or decision concerning the fire department. Herald reporter Bobby Cherry did not respond to e-mail and voice mail messages that sought to confirm this.

It should also be noted that the proposal to de-certify the fire department does not appear as an item on the council agenda for Sept. 20, as published on the borough website. Not under New Business, Other Business, or any other line item.

Was this the result of an error of omission, or an attempt at subterfuge?

I also received information that the vote to de-certify the department came near the very end of the council meeting, when most spectators and local media may have already left.

Our local media, while small and staffed only so much in uncertain times for their industry, must nonetheless focus some attention on those actions of government and other public entities, regardless of their size, that affect citizens in their coverage area.

Luckily, there is also something called citizen journalism. Hopefully there are more "netizens" willing and able to assist in monitoring these activities, and getting the word out when these kinds of decisions are made.

Observations and Thoughts

A fundamental tenet of effective human resources management (as I understand it) is that employees deserve to know when their performance is exceeding, or is below, the expectations of their employer.

There is also a principle of American law that establishes the doctrine of At-Will Employment, which in short means that absent a contract of some type either party in an employment relationship can end that relationship for any reason, or for no reason at all.

It seems as if Edgeworth Borough chose to treat an agency that served the borough for over 100 years as just a bunch of at-will employees. They took advantage of what sounds like no more than a gentleman's agreement between the two entities to accomplish this.

Borough council left this action off of their published agenda for the September 20th meeting, and acted upon it near the end of the meeting when most of the audience and media were no longer present. While this business was likely conducted within the letter of the law, it could be argued that an attempt was made to minimize debate and keep the action as quiet as possible for as long as possible.

However, the speed with which the borough's action was taken, combined with the same-day notification of the fire department and the unanimous consent of council, suggests the possibility that advance deliberations may have occurred among council members prior to September 20th.

One wonders if these deliberations may have been required to be public, in accordance with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. I don't know enough about the Act yet to make that assertion, but perhaps some concerned party will take that to a more logical conclusion.

What did the fire department do, or not do, to deserve this treatment? Regardless of the answer, there appears to be a clear disconnect between the borough and the fire department. That's not a healthy way to conduct business when public safety is the end product.

A working relationship, with some form of meaningful communication that respects the viewpoints of the participants, is essential not only for effective service provision, but to help assure accountability to citizens. I'm wondering who dropped the ball to create the situation that culminated in last week's action. It feels to me as if both sides share in some of that responsibility.

Having been a member of an area volunteer fire department, I also know that underneath the formal mutual aid agreements and cooperation in the face of emergency situations can be an unwritten, largely unspoken sense of identification with one organization over another. Add human nature to the mix, along with the kinds of personality conflicts that can arise in any organization, and you get ill will where it does not belong.

I should mention here that a good chunk of Edgeworth is closer to Leetsdale than it is to Sewickley. Hopefully that will be addressed at the dispatch level before something happens to force that consideration.

One of Mr. McDaniel's responses to Sewickley Patch raised a few more questions that I would have liked to ask:

McDaniel said Cochran Hose is just a few blocks away and response time comes down to a matter of one minute. “There’s no reason to have a fire department in Edgeworth,” he said.

I wonder if Mr. McDaniel's opinion would be different if there were still some residents of the borough serving vital roles on the fire department. Would that minute matter more if actual borough taxpayers and voters were the ones being handed their collective hat?

What are the operational advantages to maintaining a separate police force, dispatch center, public works department, administration, code enforcement..anything?

Why should Edgeworth Borough continue to exist?

The short answer is because its citizens apparently want it to, and can afford to do so.
They just can't or won't find the time to volunteer as firefighters anymore.

This is perhaps the biggest reason that Station 138, as it is known in Allegheny County, no longer provides services to a population that no longer saw fit to support it.

Marty McDaniel took slight offense to my characterizing their actions as "madness". As I said before, I agree that's a little inappropriate.

Malevolent? Perhaps. Machiavellian? That's more like it. But not "mad".

Edgeworth's firefighters got a raw deal.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, I hope that Chief Scott and his firefighters, along with those interested citizens of Edgeworth Borough, get more of the answers they are looking for, and that they can continue to depend upon a diligent local media to help them do just that.

Best wishes to them.