A Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service dispatcher was disciplined yesterday after instructing a van driver to abandon a passenger whose wheelchair became stuck in snow in a medical office parking lot, the paratransit service's manager said.
"The one great thing was that the driver stayed with her," said an apologetic Harold Humphrey, the general manager for First Transit, which operates the local paratransit system under a Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority contract.
"The dispatcher made a critical mistake. That's not the way we do business."
Mr. Humphrey said the dispatcher, who was not named, will be counseled and given retraining.
Petra Diaz, the passenger, said staff at Cole Orthotic & Prosthetic Center, where she went yesterday to be fitted for a brace, picked her up in her wheelchair and carried her to the van after she called the Cole office by cell phone.
Daniel Cole, the orthotic center's owner and president, said he was among the group that assisted Ms. Diaz to the van, and while inside he observed a text screen in the vehicle that read, "If she is stuck, she is stuck, leave her and move on."
Mr. Cole said he feared for the driver because she had disregarded the dispatcher's order.
He said he also was upset to learn that a previous TARPS driver left Ms. Diaz at a doctor's office because she couldn't get to the van, and she had to wait four hours for another ride.
TARPS official policy is that passengers are responsible for getting to or from paratransit vehicles at the curbside unless arrangements have been made for assistance.
The paratransit system, available to passengers whose disabilities preclude their use of regular TARTA service, operates in Toledo and eight suburban communities and has had rapidly rising ridership in recent years.
During 2007, just shy of 123,000 passengers boarded TARPS vans, a 17 percent increase over 2006.
But growth has been accompanied by complaints of unreliable or indifferent service, including circuitous or excessively long trips and driver failures to comply with door-to-door service arrangements.
Mr. Humphrey said the agency is trying to improve customer service and educate riders about the system's limitations.
Particularly challenging, he said, is the problem of sending a second van if someone is unavailable to board at the pickup time, which was what happened during the previous incident involving Ms. Diaz.
Drivers are obligated to wait only five minutes.
Mr. Cole said he will be satisfied that TARPS is addressing problems such as the one that affected Ms. Diaz yesterday "if it doesn't happen again."
In the meantime, he said he worries about a passenger becoming stranded at a time of day when no one is around to provide assistance.
"This is a big institution. Something needs to be changed before somebody dies," he said.
Mr. Humphrey said Ms. Diaz's stranding was the first incident of that kind he had heard about, and that it might require developing a policy addressing that issue for the future.
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