Kan. county manager to decide fate of EMS director

As the county-wide EMS crisis comes to a head, the future of Dr. John Gallagher, Sedgwick County's EMS director, remains uncertain


This is part of a series from The Wichita Eagle about what it calls "a broken emergency medical system that's growing worse by the day." Check out additional coverage of this ongoing story: 

Chance Swaim
The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. — A decision whether to keep Dr. John Gallagher as Sedgwick County EMS director rests with Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz, not the county's elected officials, Commissioner Jim Howell said Wednesday.

"If change is to happen, it can only happen when the manager makes that decision," Howell said. "That can be today or next week or possibly never."

Sedgwick County EMS Director Dr. John Gallagher's job is in the hands of the county's manager.
Sedgwick County EMS Director Dr. John Gallagher's job is in the hands of the county's manager. (Photo/Sedgwick County EMS Employees Association)

While the decision rests with Stolz, his decisions hinge on support from the commission, who can hire and fire the county manager but not other county employees. It's unclear where others stand.

An Eagle investigation found Sedgwick County EMS response times have gotten dangerously slow under Gallagher, with EMS reaching fewer than one in three patients in life-threatening emergencies within 9 minutes — a national standard for response times — this year. More than a third of the EMS department has left since Gallagher was promoted by Stolz in 2019, forcing the county to regularly cut down on the number of available ambulances.

Despite years of warnings, county leaders failed to resolve the conflict between Gallagher and EMS employees, The Eagle found.

"I think the Wichita Eagle's comprehensive reports should compel responsive leaders to act," Howell said.

Gallagher was promoted through a merger of Emergency Medical Services and the Office of the Medical Director in August 2019, after a majority of the County Commission voiced approval.

On Wednesday, Howell called for those departments to be separated and said new leaders should be chosen through a competitive search. That would effectively end the physician-led model the county once touted as an innovative approach to EMS that would save money, lessen conflict within the department and improve patient care.

"This new model has not delivered any of the objectives stated for initiating this experiment," Howell said.

Pressure has been building to fire Gallagher since late April, when a large group of Sedgwick County EMS employees demanded his immediate removal in two closed-door, town hall meetings with Stolz and Rusty Leeds, Gallagher's direct supervisor and assistant county manager of public safety.

As ambulance shortages continue, an online petition — initiated after the Eagle series published — calling for Gallagher to be fired gained more than 3,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

During the town hall meetings, some EMS employees also called for the immediate termination of Dr. Carolina Pereira, who has been deputy medical director for 18 months. She handed in her 90-day resignation notice last week, citing objections to EMS employees being allowed to speak to commissioners and reporters and to post on social media "with no discussion, communication, or ramification."

County Counselor Mike Pepoon ordered an audit of EMS leadership by the private law firm Hite, Fanning & Honeyman in June.

At Wednesday's County Commission meeting, the first regular meeting since an Eagle series showed the crisis in EMS, Howell laid the blame for the crisis at the feet of county management.

"I am disappointed that Sedgwick County leadership has allowed this issue to fester to the point that extensive organizational damage has brought the entire public safety system into a crisis, in my opinion," Howell said.

Stolz did not respond to Howell during the commission meeting and did not field questions from reporters after the meeting. Nor did any other county commissioner comment on the EMS crisis during the open meeting or afterward.

A majority of former employees contacted by The Eagle cited Gallagher's leadership style and a "toxic" work environment as their primary reasons for leaving. Many also blamed Stolz for appointing Gallagher without opening the job for a competitive search after more than 100 employees signed a petition asking for an open search and raising objections to the merger and Gallagher's leadership style.

Gallagher's contract, approved on the consent agenda by the County Commission in December 2019, says he may be removed for cause without penalty to the county. To do so, the county would need to prove it had cause to fire him, such as failure to perform his duties or negligent performance of duties, the contract shows.

If Gallagher were removed without cause, the county would have to provide 90 days written notice and pay him more than $111,000, or six months' salary.

Commissioners say the law firm finished its audit last week, but its findings have not been shared with commissioners and likely won't be released to the public because it's shielded by attorney-client privilege. Howell said commissioners could be briefed by Friday or Monday.

Sedgwick County commissioners had previously said they expected to be briefed Wednesday on the findings of the law firm.

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(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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