REGIONAL— For the past several years, Allen Lewis has been a man with a mission. In his five years as fire chief and emergency manager for the city of Virginia, he has been frustrated by the …
REGIONAL— For the past several years, Allen Lewis has been a man with a mission. In his five years as fire chief and emergency manager for the city of Virginia, he has been frustrated by the inefficiencies he sees in the delivery of emergency medical and fire services in the region and has focused considerable energy on seeking solutions.
Now, he’ll have the resources provided by a Bush Fellowship to further that objective. Lewis was one of 24 leaders from Minnesota and North and South Dakota to receive the fellowship, which was announced earlier this month. A total of 746 people had applied for the coveted award, which provides recipients up to $100,000 to pursue leadership training to advance a particular objective.
For Lewis, the objective was never in doubt. As the Bush Foundation noted in its award announcement, “Allen Lewis envisions a future where emergency services in rural communities are more effective, timely, and equitable.”
For Lewis, it’s all about the numbers. As he likes to say, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” Lewis has crunched the numbers and believes there are more efficient and effective ways to deliver emergency services in northern St. Louis County through consolidation of services. Now, thanks to his Bush Fellowship, he hopes to bolster his leadership skills to better navigate the complicated process of achieving that goal. Like many Bush fellows, he’ll take coursework in leadership at Harvard later this year. He’s also planning to visit places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom to see firsthand how people in those countries are delivering emergency services in rural areas. Along the way, he hopes to develop a network of advisors and mentors he can call on as he pursues his objectives.
Lewis will maintain his position in Virginia, relying mostly on accrued vacation time for the foreign travel and to attend classes at Harvard. He’ll have 24 months to complete his project, although he recognizes that achieving his ultimate goal for emergency services in the region is likely to take much longer than that
Lewis, who moved to the area for his current job, has brought an outsider’s perspective to emergency services on the Iron Range and points north. He notes that the places he hopes to visit have highly centralized systems in place for emergency services, which is a model he thinks could serve northern St. Louis County well. Still, Lewis acknowledges he has no preconceived notions about how the current system can best be reformed. “But first we have to admit that there’s an issue,” he said.
In his view, parochialism from the past helped to create the fragmented system in place today and he believes both operational and administrative efficiencies can be achieved by more coordination and consolidation of services. He believes it will take a new attitude to create a system that best serves residents of the region. “Right now, we’re not looking at how working together can help everyone,” he said. “In a larger system you have efficiencies that can be gained that can’t happen in a more fragmented system.”
He said the current system is leaving some areas behind, particularly lower-income communities, that don’t have the resources or the training to provide the level of service that’s now required. “Needs are changing, and calls are changing. And people have not been invested in, in terms of leadership and training, and it hasn’t served northern St. Louis County well.”
Lewis also believes that St. Louis County has a much larger role to play in the delivery of emergency services. He notes that the county currently contributes just over $100,000 a year to fire and EMS, out of a $300 million annual budget, which is much less than other counties spend on such critical services.
“There is a fundamental shift that has to occur,” he said. Part of that shift, he said, may be to do away with the notion that emergency services, both fire and medical, can continue to be delivered by volunteers.
While he thinks consolidation models are the region’s best bet, he acknowledges that any decisions have to come willingly from area communities, and are likely to require considerable discussion and negotation. “Political buy-in is going to be key to this. It has to be their idea,” Lewis said. “You can’t force it. You can only provide opportunities.”