Fire chief: City lacking in ambulance oversight

"Essentially a company shows up, there's no oversight ... there's no anything," Decatur Fire Department Chief Jeff Abbott said

By Tom Lisi
Herald & Review

DECATUR, Ill.  — The Decatur City Council is set to vote later this month on a sweeping update of rules for licensed ambulance companies after Decatur Fire Chief Jeff Abbott on Monday presented recommendations that painted the city's oversight of the services as far behind others in the region.

"What we've looked at for several years is Decatur's ambulance ordinance is very antiquated," Abbott told the Herald & Review prior to the council meeting. "Essentially a company shows up, there's no oversight, there's no (reporting of) response times, there's no anything."

Decatur Fire Chief Jeff Abbott said the city's oversight of the services as far behind others in the region. (Photo/Facebook)
Decatur Fire Chief Jeff Abbott said the city's oversight of the services as far behind others in the region. (Photo/Facebook)

The report comes less than two weeks after Hospital Sisters Health System, the parent hospital system of HSHS St. Mary's Hospital, announced it had bought the privately-run Decatur Ambulance Service. The company is the city's only ambulance service and has operated in Decatur for 59 years.

Abbott said his recommendations stemmed from discussions with other Central Illinois communities. Most council members quickly voiced support Monday night of an overhaul of city code regarding ambulance service that could raise license fees, require ambulance companies to report response times and join the same dispatch system used by the fire and Decatur Police Department.

"This is something that is way overdue," Councilwoman Dana Ray said.

Among the findings, Abbott said city code does not require the ambulance service to:

Use the same emergency dispatch service as the fire department, which also responds to emergency medical calls.

Use a vehicle location system to track where ambulances and other EMS vehicles are at any given time.

Be in communication with dispatchers and the fire department during emergency calls

Be part of an "incident command" system that determines a hierarchy of differently-equipped vehicles to respond to calls based on the nature of the emergency.

Abbott said the city charges $100 a year for a license to operate an ambulance in Decatur, and $15 per vehicle. That's compared to $15,000 per ambulance service in Champaign.

A spokesman from HSHS St. Mary's Hospital did not immediately return comment on the fire chief's findings Monday night.

David Burkham, CEO of the Decatur Ambulance Service, said he was traveling when reached by phone Monday night and could not immediately comment.

The ambulance service has 115 employees and a fleet of 22 vehicles. It also maintains locations in Pana and Shelbyville.

Asked why city officials hadn't sought more oversight of ambulance service before, City Manager Tim Gleason said, "That is a good question and a couple of council members asked it. It's something that had been in play for quite some time. We just expected the ambulance service would provide that level of care even absent the city requiring it, but it's the right thing to do."

Gleason said another ambulance service provider was in serious talks to become the second such company to operate in the city of Decatur. Two representatives from the company were at Monday night's meeting but would not identify their employer to the Herald & Review.

Decatur has not had more than one company providing ambulance service to city residents since at least the 1970s, Abbott said.

In 2015, Abbott proposed that the Decatur Fire Department add its own ambulance to help cut response times for emergency calls in the city. After outcry from Decatur Ambulance Service employees and others, the council elected not to pursue the plan.

“We don't believe the city is adequately served by the current number of 24/7 ambulances,” Abbott said in 2015. “We believe we could increase the number of ambulances without adding additional firefighters to the department.”

On Monday, Abbott said the Decatur Ambulance Service provided adequate response times and service to the community, but more oversight from the fire department could help manage the fleet of emergency management service vehicles, including fire trucks.

In other business, council members convened in a closed session after the meeting to begin a search for a new city manager and pick an interim replacement after Tim Gleason leaves the post later this month.

Their first big decision will be whether to hire a third-party search firm to recruit and vet candidates for the job. In their 2014 search that led to Gleason's hiring from his post as city administrator in Washington, city officials contracted with GovHR USA, a national Illinois-based firm that does professional recruitment for local governments.

Since the 2014 search for city manager, city officials have contracted with GovHR USA four times: 2017 searches for a new human resources director and economic and community development director; a 2018 city staffing analysis; and "professional outreach" for a new public works director last year.

Gleason will take on the same position in Bloomington, starting July 23, at an annual salary of $185,000, a $9,000 bump from his Decatur position. The Bloomington City Council formally approved the hire last week, the last step in a months-long search to fill the position.

Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe declined to comment Monday night after the meeting.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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