By Anthony G. Balog, NRP Captain, Gloucester Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad
Interview by Ryan Greenberg
NEMSMA Board Secretary
This month’s NEMSMA Member spotlight is with Benjamin Abes, EMS Chief and Deputy Public Safety Director for Lee County Department of Public Safety. Chief Abes took the time to talk to NEMSMA Secretary Ryan Greenberg and share some of his thoughts and ideas.
Lee County Department of Public Safety
Size of Department: 405
Annual Request for Service: 82,000
Annual Transports: 56,000
Tell us a little bit about your agency (type of agency, call volume, location, number of staff)
We are the Department of Public Safety here in Lee County, located in Southwest Florida. The Division of Emergency Medical Services, which is formally known as Lee County EMS, is just one component of a number of programs within the Department of Public Safety. Lee County is home to approximately 720,000 permanent residents, but we welcome about 4 million visitors to our community every year. So there is a very vibrant and robust community, and there are a lot of people coming and joining the Southwest Florida lifestyle and enjoying the weather, especially this time of year when it is starting snow up north.
So I imagine that it is a little bit of a challenge sometimes that the amount of seasonal change and population. I know it’s not one of our questions on our spotlight, but how do you handle that? Such a spike in population and change?
Well it’s one of the issues that we have to manage very carefully. We have our permanent residents, which of course, have this underlying, constant level of activity and volume within the system. But then, of course, this time of year when it starts to get colder up north and we get a lot more seasonal residents that come down Whether they come down for 6 months or come down for a number of weeks at a time, those residents cause additional volume into the system and our system is designed to handle the underlying permanent resident volume as well as the surge in our tourist season. Those 4 million visitors are really spread throughout the year, but we do see a pretty significant increase, with 20-30% of our volume during that tourist season.
How long has your agency been a member with NEMSMA and what made them decide to join?
I joined NEMSMA 3 years ago. That was one of the first things I was encouraged to do when in I entered my position as the Operations Chief. It was a really interesting opportunity to be able to learn more about what was going on in EMS nationally. I think that is one of the things I enjoy the most. I am engaged in and involved in a lot of state organizations and organizations at a regional level. But to hear the feedback, hear the news going on at a national level, is really important, especially for EMS Leaders across the country.
What do you think is something different and/or innovative about that Lee County Public Safety Division that helps you lead as an agency, and help you succeed into the future?
I think a great example is what brings you down here to Southwest Florida today;: our Leadership Academy. Over the last 3 years, we developed a leadership academy that is run in-house. It is a week long program, 40 hours, to help build leadership skills within the employees in our work force. We take EMS employees that work on ambulances, employees in our other Public Safety Divisions, which include Communications, Emergency Management, E-911 Network, Information Technology, and other support Divisions. Also some of our external partners send candidates to the academy as well. I believe this is an important step to building the succession necessary to keep the organization going into the future. We hold the class twice a year, and as soon as it’s over, we do a hot wash afterwards and it changes and gets some tweaks as we get student feedback. We now believe it’s really refined. We have received really good feedback and results from the employees that go through the class.
What is one thing your agency is most proud of?
I think as far as EMS goes, I am definitely most proud of our personnel. Whether it’s our seasonal influx, or the challenges with the hospital systems and services, or changes in our patient population, our personnel are not just very flexible, but they are exceptionally skilled and very good at what they do. That’s one of the things that I think I am really proudest of is that whether its providing medical care, or simply providing that additional ear that a patient might need to provide some comfort on the way to the hospital or on scene, our people really hit it out of the park each and every day. We are really proud of that.
What makes your leadership team work well together?
Our leadership team has really been in flux the past couple of years, with some people retiring, some people coming and going, and one of things that I think has been key to keeping that continuity has been trust. When we go into simple decisions and discussions, to the most complex decisions and discussions, everybody around the table knows that there is mutual trust that extends amongst every division, amongst every office within the Division of Emergency Medical Services we all trust each other. We all know that if we don’t necessarily agree with something that we are open to speak our minds, and we encourage it because we want to hear what everybody thinks and foresees so that we can make better decisions. I think it is really important to establish and grow that trust, and that’s not something you walk in and say “Hey we all trust each other, were good.” That is built over weeks, months and years of getting that team together and having those open discussions.
So when you talk about trust, you’re not only talking about something where “I made the decision, you’re going to trust I made the best decision,” but it’s even trust to speak freely and bring forth an idea that maybe even the Chief is not comfortable with.
Oh, absolutely. In fact, I hope that if I am bringing an idea forward that it is getting just as much critical thought and analysis as anyone else who brings a thought or idea to the table. I think that’s one of things we really enjoy within our leadership team; that open dialogue and that trust when we get into a room together to discuss a topic or an issue that “Hey it’s no holds barred.” Let us know how you feel and how you think. Let’s analyze these things to make a good decision.
What would your words of encouragement and/or advise be to other agencies to help them keep their agency and our profession moving forward?
I think one of things we have really tried to focus on in the last 12 to 18 month is knowing our business. We do a lot of different things, but at the end of the day were an EMS Agency, we take care of patients. We do all kinds of cool things. We have a bike team, an honor guard, air medical, we have all of these different groups and subsets, different things that we reach out to do. At the end of the day it comes down to the next tone that goes off, that next patient interaction and making sure that not only the entire system is ready, but that individual provider, whether its three in the afternoon or three in the morning, that they are going to be ready to go out there and engage that patient and do the right thing medically but also through whatever other needs might arise during that patient contact. I think that’s not necessarily easy to do when you have a lot of competing priorities and things that you have to work through, but knowing your business and focusing on your core competences to say “these are the things we are going to just be really, really good at”.
What is an idea or concept that you feel would be valuable for other leaders to know in order to help them succeed as an EMS leader?
Well I’m new in my position, I’ve been in my position for four months now. One of the things I have learned is that, while it is good for me to think and consider things, I have to get a lot of voices around me. Good voices, again, going back to that trust. It’s very easy for me to sit at a desk and make decisions, but it’s much better if I go out and get feedback on those decisions, if I include the entire team on decisions. I find that not only do we get buy in on that, but also it refines that decision and it creates a dialogue that is not only beneficial to that decision, but its beneficial to the team environment. It’s very easy, I think, as a newer leader getting in to an organization, a large organization where you have a lot of things on your plate and you just shut the door and start working on issues and working on things, it’s a lot harder than to open that door, get a bunch of people in to a room and discuss stuff, but it’s really important to have a chorus of voices around you to help you weigh different decisions, options and figure out the best way to get things done.
What would you say to those who are considering signing up or becoming more active in NEMSMA?
I would strongly encourage it. Like I said earlier, we have a great regional conversation amongst local chiefs and organizations and we have very robust state EMS committees, the advisory council. The one thing that I really enjoy from NEMSMA is that you do get that national picture. You get to hear a lot about what agencies outside of your local area are doing. It’s really cool not just to hear what other agencies in Florida are doing, but also what an agency in New York, New Jersey, or Minnesota, or California might be doing. All these different agencies, share their news, share their information through NEMSMA and you get to get a much better picture of what some of the most innovative agencies in the country are doing. I think that’s really helpful. The second part of that would be the advocacy. To be part of an organization that helps advocate for EMS providers is very, very important. That’s another important consideration when you thing about joining NEMSMA.
Thanks to Chief Abes for taking time out of his schedule to share with the members of NEMSMA about himself and his agency and we wish him continued success in his new position. For more information on Lee County Division of EMS and the Department of Public Safety, go to www.leegov.com look for the Department of Public Safety under the department listing. There you can find Job postings, information on the organization as well as the Lee County Medical Protocols.
Click below to watch the Lee County spotlight video.