Chief under fire for response

Commissioners question Iola Fire Chief about his decision to call in ambulances from Moran and Humboldt, but not calling in volunteer firefighters for a structure fire last week.

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April 14, 2021 - 10:29 AM

Fire chief Chase Waggoner responds to questions from commissioners regarding a structure fire last week at the Harmony Health store in Iola. Concerns were raised given that volunteer departments from Moran and Humboldt were not called to respond. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Tempers were running hot during a portion of Tuesday’s county commission meeting.

Commissioners wanted to know how, during a structure fire last week at the Harmony Health store in Iola, the following scenario developed:

“I received a telephone call from the Moran area,” said commissioner David Lee. “And there were some concerns about not having ambulance service in that neck of the woods while the fire went on … There was a young man having issues (in Moran) and it took a period of time to get somebody over to him.”

Firefighters battle a blaze at Harmony Health, on Lincoln Street near State Street.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

In short, the intensity of the situation had prompted fire chief Chase Waggoner, the incident commander, to call in ambulances to assist from both Moran and Humboldt. This left a momentary gap, as Moran’s replacement vehicle had to drive across almost the entire county.

When the backup ambulance for the Moran area did not arrive on schedule, this led the resident in question to have to wait for services.

Here’s where commissioners pushed the point, wanting to know why volunteer fire departments weren’t called to assist on the scene. The contention seemed to be that had Waggoner called for the usual local support, pulling the ambulances would not have been necessary.

In response, Waggoner said “with a volunteer fire department, we don’t know how many people we’re going to get. We don’t know how long it’s going to take them to get there, and when they show up, we don’t know if they’re going to be certified.”

“They might unfortunately be more of a liability, as opposed to city/county personnel, which we know are going to be there in 15 minutes.”

When prompted for a fix that might have prevented the situation, Waggoner added “I really can’t think of a better solution, because, with a joint fire and EMS service, when we have an active emergency, it’s difficult for me to, in good conscience, hold back personnel.”

In this case, calling for ambulances to be sent from Moran and Humboldt to Iola.

However, in contrast to Waggoner, it seemed clear that the solution commissioners had in mind was utilizing volunteer fire crews.

“Was Moran fire utilized? Was Humboldt utilized?” asked commissioner Jerry Daniels.

Waggoner answered in the negative, and in turn said, “I feel like we’re getting conflicting orders,” because, he noted, the fire department is both expected to keep ambulance stations staffed while also providing patient transports — a situation he viewed as akin to commissioners both expecting ambulance stations staffed while also fully responding to an emergency.

Moving forward, then, it seems that philosophical differences may cause a nagging rift between the county and fire department if entities cannot come to some sort of mutually-shared agreement regarding the use of volunteer staff and crew presence at various stations.

Commissioner Lee suggested additional training for volunteer crews, which Waggoner agreed was a good idea and said he was already working towards, putting together a “mini fire fighter academy.”

Any details of a staffing plan would be forthcoming, though commissioner Bruce Symes suggested that this was already part of the “mutual aid agreement” between various entities, where the volunteer fire departments are fully included.

In other news, Lisse Regehr, CEO Thrive Allen County, again asked commissioners if they would be interested in pursuing a transportation grant from the Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP).

The funds would be used in Allen County to help shift workers ensure that they can physically get to their workplaces.

As commissioners felt as though their hands were full with other initiatives, they advised Regehr to wait until next year to apply.

Becky Voorhies, director of health programs at Thrive, presented commissioners with an application from a local business in Gas that was seeking Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.

Commissioners agreed to award the entity $7,500, which would make it the nineteenth small business to be helped out by the last round of CDBG funding.

Jonathon Goering, Thrive’s economic development director, said that he had submitted to have Allen County host a KDOT-sponsored airport event, and added that he was also looking at applying for a small grant from the FAA.

Chelsie Angleton, 911 director, said it was time for the storm sirens in Savonburg and Mildred to have their batteries checked and possibly replaced.

Jason Trego and Chelsie Angleton from the Allen County Critical Response Center talk with commissioners about systems to improve performance on dispatch calls.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

The total cost for battery charging, travel and labor was estimated at $1,953.

Angleton also spoke with commissioners about continuing to use a service for evaluating and improving calls.

Statistics she provided said that over the past couple years, thanks to call evaluation, “high compliance” calls had increased from 19% to 63%; and therefore she wanted to continue in that direction, with the goal of achieving ACE accreditation.

After some discussion, commissioners agreed that EMS paying around $32,000 to Priority Dispatch for the service was worth the cost.

“This is very impressive,” said commissioner Bruce Symes, speaking to statistical improvements made by the department. “I’m proud of you guys.”

During his weekly report, public works director Mitch Garner said that work was set to begin on the 1800/Nebraska Road area, tearing it up and returning it to gravel.

He also noted that crews had been cutting brush, cleaning culverts and other springtime maintenance measures.

Commissioners encouraged Garner to continue the search for a used “hot patch” pothole patching machine.

“Let’s bump that up,” said Daniels. “I think there’s a need for it.”

Sheriff Bryan Murphy again broached the topic of how money received by the county from president Biden’s America Rescue Plan might be spent.

Allen County looks to receive in excess of $2 million.

Murphy and county clerk Sherrie Riebel said they thought that bonuses for workers not to exceed $5,000 would be warranted for those who put in hazard time due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

No action was taken regarding the funds at this time.

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