Michael Stavola and Chance Swaim
The Wichita Eagle
Two more Sedgwick County EMS workers quit the department last week, blaming unresponsive county leadership during an ongoing crisis.
Both providers — a paramedic and an EMT — announced their resignations in lengthy Facebook posts, citing a Wichita Eagle investigation while sharing a petition calling for the removal of EMS director Dr. John Gallagher.
Many employees have called on Gallagher to be fired, but a majority of the Sedgwick County commissioners are waiting on the results of an outside audit by a law firm before considering changes to the department. The audit is expected to be shared with commissioners soon, but it won’t include input from employees who left.
Their insight could have dispelled the narrative some have floated of employees leaving because of pay and pandemic burnout. Rather, in comments given in an internal survey conducted by EMS workers and in Eagle interviews, a majority said EMS leadership was the primary reason they left.
The latest separations put additional strain on an emergency medical system that’s already sputtering.
A Wichita Eagle investigative series detailed the department’s struggles under Dr. John Gallagher last week. Since county leaders promoted Gallagher in 2019 — against the wishes of a majority of EMS staff — a third of the department has left, resulting in ambulance shutdowns and dangerously slow response times.
This year, Sedgwick County EMS reached fewer than one in three patients within 9 minutes — a national standard for EMS response.
More Employees Leave
Karsten Whyte and Grant Geddeis both announced via Facebook last week that they were leaving Sedgwick County EMS.
Whyte, a 20-year-old paramedic, said he moved to Wichita so he could work for Sedgwick County EMS, where he planned to retire. Instead, after a year on the job, he’s taking his paramedic license to Texas.
Whyte said he decided to leave because of inaction by county leaders following the Eagle’s reporting and two closed-door town hall meetings in April, attended by nearly 130 past and present employees — more than half the department — demanding Gallagher’s removal.
“They’ve been educated,” Whyte said. “They know what’s going on. It’s not like any of this (expletive) has been hidden from them. It’s out there.”
Whyte said “radio silence” by county leaders in the aftermath of the April meetings and the Eagle’s reporting on the EMS crisis has the entire department feeling uneasy.
“It feels like there is something going on that they’re not telling us, and I truly believe they’re setting us up for failure,” he said.
Grant Geddeis, a 22-year-old EMT, said uncertainty about the department’s future factored into his decision to leave.
“Who knows what will happen with (Sedgwick County EMS) in the next 6 months,” he said. “Who knows if there will even be a (Sedgwick County EMS). All I can tell you now is if something doesn’t change and change fast that more lives will be at risk because of slow response times and fewer ambulances on the street.”
Sedgwick County EMS employees first called for the removal of Gallagher during the April meetings. They warned County Manager Tom Stolz and Assistant County Manager Rusty Leeds that the slower response times put the entire community at risk.
“After those meetings, I thought something would happen,” Whyte said. “I was really hoping something would happen. But there’s just kind of radio silence from the managers and a lot of county commissioners.”
Commissioners Jim Howell and Sarah Lopez attended the meetings, and an audio recording was provided to the entire commission. Commissioner David Dennis told The Eagle he refused to listen to it because EMS workers asked that he, Commissioner Pete Meitzner, Gallagher and Gallagher’s executive team not be invited to the meetings so that they could speak freely.
“In my opinion, it’s pretty childish for a commissioner to act like that,” Whyte said. “They’re voted in by the citizens of Sedgwick County to listen to us, to take action on things and not to be childish like that. So that really kind of sealed the deal for me whenever he started acting like that — not wanting to listen to our problems and our cries for help.”
After the meetings, County Counselor Mike Pepoon ordered an audit of Sedgwick County EMS leadership by private law firm Hite, Fanning & Honeyman.
What the Audit Won’t Say
Howell, who has already called on Gallagher to be placed on administrative leave during the audit, said the audit won’t be as comprehensive as it could have been, since auditors didn’t interview employees who left.
“Unfortunately, (the auditors) did not interview the nearly 100 employees that have left Sedgwick County EMS since the previous, permanent director retired in 2018,” Howell said during a commission meeting last week. “It seems to me that that process should have included those folks.”
If the audit did speak with people who left, it would have found a majority of people left the department because of Gallagher, according to Eagle interviews and an internal survey conducted by EMS workers.
More than 50 people who left their full-time jobs after Gallagher’s appointment filled out the online survey. Roughly 64% mentioned Gallagher — either directly by name or by pointing out management — as the reason they left Sedgwick County EMS.
“The reason I left Sedgwick county EMS was due to the toxic leadership from Dr. John Gallagher (and deputy directors Dr. Carolina Pereira) and Paul Misasi,” one former employee wrote. “I felt that they have very little value in the employees, and I no longer felt like a valued member of the organization.”
Pereira put in her resignation a month after being interviewed by The Eagle and just days before the Eagle’s “Unresponsive” series published July 11.
Another former employee said: “Many reasons (why they left), no trust in our director, medical director, administration, county commissioners and manager. Lack of respect from all of the listed above.”
Leadership changes, including the removal of Gallagher, were mentioned more than 75% of the time under a question about what would need to change for them to return.
“Massive leadership and management overhaul,” one person wrote.
Besides Gallagher, respondents mentioned Pereira, Misasi, Stolz and Leeds would need to be removed in order for them to consider returning.
“I would like to see Mr. Stolz replaced as county manager,” one person wrote. “His abysmal handling of our department’s struggle the last two years, coupled with his refusal to understand how we operate, has caused me to lose all confidence in his ability as a leader. Mr. Leeds has displayed the same ineptitude in my opinion, as well.”
One person said “several commissioners” would need to leave before they would come back.
Another former employee said: “I love caring for people in the community, but I no longer felt I had a long term safety in a service and was disrespected by many of the county commissioners.”
Behind the overarching theme of leadership problems, money was second. Officials have used money and COVID as a reason the employees left.
But money was often a footnote for their departure, according to the survey and interviews done by The Eagle.
“Low pay was an issue but not a reason why I left as I make the same at my current ems position,” a former employee said in the survey. “Administration has zero (accountability) and will continue to run the service in to the ground until AMR finally take over.”
AMR, or American Medical Response, is a private EMS service. Some employees believe there are county officials who want the department to fail so it can be privatized.
Brian Leuci, a former lieutenant, said pay was a “small part” of why he left in April 2020 after 12 years with the department. He took a similar position in Arkansas City.
“90% of the reason I left was because of the toxic leadership from Dr. Gallagher,” he told The Eagle in an email. “My plan was to stay at SCEMS for the entirety of my career. The decision to leave was not taken lightly . . . The other 10% that helped me decide to leave were the county commissioners (and Leeds) not listening to the street level employees.”
Not everyone who is unhappy is leaving entirely. Lt. Chad Izzo, who was interviewed for the audit, said he will move from full-time to part-time Sunday.
“John Gallagher is THE worst leader I have ever served under, and this is saying a lot as I have been in the military for the past 8 years,” he wrote in an email. “Not only does he have zero leadership experience/awareness, but he is also the purest form of a narcis(sis)tic leader that I have met. He has turned a once honored/progressive/proud service into a toxic black hole that no one wants to be a part of. When I started at the County, there was a line of paramedics waiting to get a full-time position. Now, there is a line of paramedics looking for other jobs and waiting to quit the service.”
Izzo said he decided to go part-time instead of leaving altogether just in “case things change and get better.”
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