“The Bob”

Everyone in the EMS world mourned the loss of Bob Forbuss who died this week following a battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In the end he was ravished by the disease and he had suffered greatly. For those who did not know Bob he was a “larger-than-life” modern EMS leader who built, owned and ran Mercy Ambulance in Las Vegas. Bob eventually sold his shares to MedTrans, which became Laidlaw which eventually became American Medical Response. Bob was known on a national level for his development and ongoing work with the American Ambulance Association (AAA), the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services and numerous other state and regional organizations.

I am not going to eulogize Bob, it wouldn’t feel right for me to do so. There are so many others who are closer, loved him more and are far better suited for that task – and they will have plenty to say. For those who are interested there are already many touching tributes on Bob’s facebook page, found at https://www.facebook.com/robert.forbuss?ref=ts. But I do want to tell a story or two, I guess just because.

Bob lived his entire life in Las Vegas which probably helped earn him the nickname “The Bob”, playing off Donald Trump’s “The Donald”. Bob was a “showman” who could command a room like no one I ever met. He could fit into any situation and appear comfortable even when the situation was well outside of his comfort zone. I remember one winter he was invited on a duck hunting trip with the owners of Acadian Ambulance in Louisiana. Now, I am told their duck blind is “palatial” but anyone who knew Bob Forbuss has to laugh at the thought of him sitting in a cold duck blind waiting to shoot a 12 gauge shotgun at a duck. Plus, I am sure Gucci doesn’t make hip waders and Bob, who was always impeccably dressed probably struggled with the “outfit”.

Bob’s company was well run and was always staffed with a team of employees and managers, who were dedicated and extremely loyal to Bob, despite or maybe because of, his quirks. Many of his employees had been at Mercy since they were teenagers, some had never worked anywhere else. Bob could be a micromanager if the task was something he was very interested in or he could leave you alone to succeed or fail on your own if not. He could be distant one minute and disarmingly charming and warm the next. Whichever Bob showed up you never had any doubt about his care for that company and the people who were a part of it.

When you worked for Bob, you had to always have money and credit cards with you, because Bob never did. He either didn’t have, couldn’t find or had just lost his wallet – it was a regular occurrence. The management staff used to laugh that if we were ever reimbursed for all the lunches, tips and parking fees they’d picked up over the years they would be more wealthy then him. Bob was generous to a fault so no one really minded.

I first met Bob at an American Ambulance Association conference in Las Vegas one November in the mid eighties. I spoke at the conference on system status management and Mercy Ambulance was just starting to consider the use of this complex deployment system. Later in the conference, I took a Bob Forbuss guided tour of Mercy Ambulance and got to hear Bob dazzle two dozen people from the conference on Mercy Ambulance and some of the innovative things they were doing.

Bob had been elected the next President of the AAA and he knew with the new time constraints he was going to need an operations manager. He offered me the job and I eventually accepted. I was the first manager hired from the outside; everyone else on the management team had promoted up through the organization. Bob and I had a good relationship, he trusted me and didn’t hover. But our relationship wasn’t as close as it was with the others, after all I was an outsider. There were no long conversations, no direction on transition, nothing really outside of work, he just kind of threw me the keys to his company and let me go to work – and for that I was grateful. I learned a great deal from Bob over the three years I was there and never grew tired of watching him in the public arena. He was a raging liberal Democrat but his ability to support either party and to never be “at odds” with the other side was amazing. It was a gift.

I had been there about five days, hadn’t yet unpacked and Bob walks in my office and says, “Steve there is a two day, full-scale, citywide disaster exercise that has been planned for a year. Everyone from the city emergency services, fire departments and many from the local governments will be there. It’s in Emmetsburg, Maryland and I don’t want to go…you leave Sunday”. I said, “Sure Bob, but you know I don’t really know anything about Mercy Ambulance and its capabilities yet”. Bob said, that’s okay take Steve Lewis with you.” Steve Lewis had been there about a year, and was doing “special projects”, so off we went to Emmetsburg with EVERYONE else from Las Vegas.

I was little nervous. We checked into our dormitory rooms (I would later learn Bob doesn’t do dormitories so his reluctance to go and participate in this exercise made more sense) and the first night I met most of the people who I would be working with for the next couple of years. I felt comfortable with the Fire Chief, City Manager, EMS leadership and was beginning to think I could pull this off. The first morning we were sent to a room with a large tabletop model of Las Vegas and we sat around the table with the operational personnel from the fire and police departments, the city manager’s staff, the EMS agency personnel and other dignitaries from Las Vegas. The exercise begins and some “major disaster” is described by the moderator who then starts asking those around the table to respond to what their “agency’s next move is”. As the disaster progressed he looks at me and says, “Mr. Athey what’s Mercy’s next move”?

Let’s go back six months…Remember the “tour” of Mercy Ambulance, hosted by Bob Forbuss – the “showman” that dazzled those in attendance with Mercy’s cutting edge innovations? Well one of those “innovations” was a communication center upgrade that included, as described by Bob Forbuss, a “reverse call back program”, where in the event of a disaster an “automatic call back device” would “begin auto dialing all the off duty employees, playing them a recorded message to return to the station for an emergency response”. Bob, assured all of us on the tour he could staff an additional 10 to 15 ambulances within 20 minutes.

So, when I was asked by the moderator to outline Mercy’s response during this table top exercise I began by describing “moving the appropriate on-duty units into position”, I then said, “I would activate our auto dialer in dispatch which will automatically call in all off-duty employees, having them respond to the main station to staff 10 -15 additional ambulance within 20 minutes”. As I am speaking, and quite frankly impressing everyone around the table, I can see Steve Lewis out of the corner of my eye starring daggers at me, with his mouth wide open – I was little confused. During the first break, Steve and I stepped outside, and he said “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”, “Where did you get that story?”……..you see apparently Mercy never had a reverse auto dialer, has never used a reverse auto dialer, and currently had no way to call back employees except for calling them one at a time. Not wanting Steve Lewis to think I had made it all up, I protested saying, “Steve, I heard Bob Forbuss tell a room full of people about it”. Steve just smiled and said, “yea that was for show”. So, I had just laid out a disaster plan component that didn’t exist. Later that day the Las Vegas Fire Chief stopped me in the hall and said, he wanted to come by Mercy and see the “auto dialer”. He never came by, I assumed he knew. When I asked Bob about this when I got back to Las Vegas, he just smiled and said, “You should have let Steve Lewis answer the questions”. Wise advice, lesson learned.

I had been there about three months and was settling in to the job. Bob, was never a clock watcher and he would be at the office at different times during the day or night. And it wasn’t a big deal if you weren’t at the office at eight, but being relatively new I didn’t like coming in late and always tried to be on time. I didn’t feel like I had been there long enough to be lax about it. But one morning I was late and as I drove to work I needed gas. In Las Vegas most gas stations also have carwashes so I decided to have my car washed- after all I am late for work already.

As my car is going through the car wash I watch Bob Forbuss pull up across the street at the drive-through cleaners. He stops his car, gets out, goes to the trunk and hauls out about 100 pounds of clothes leaving them on the counter. He gets back in his car, comes across the street and pulls into the gas station. I’m thinking “damn” here it is 9:00 am, I haven’t yet made it to work and here comes Bob…maybe he will just gas up and drive away. But no such luck he throws his keys to the attendant and comes inside while they start to wash his car. I’m sitting in the corner, holding the newspaper trying to look inconspicuous, hoping he won’t notice me. I see him heading my way and he says “Steve…….
I lost my wallet can you pay for my gas and car wash, and do you have a couple of bucks to tip the guy?” Sure Bob I’d be glad to.

The last time I saw Bob was at the American Ambulance Association’s 2010 annual convention. I was pleased to be invited to a private gathering where Bob Forbuss was honored and was equally pleased to have a seat at his table for dinner. Although we talked a couple of times that year I hadn’t seen him since his diagnosis and the rapid onset of his symptoms. I had been told by his close friends that he was in pain, had lost a lot of weight, was very weak and could only speak in short hushed tones. Earlier in the day several of us talked about how uncomfortable we were about the evening because we didn’t know what to say to Bob or how to act in the face of his terminal condition. Small talk lines like “How’s it going” or “How you been” certainly don’t work. Do you hug him? What do you say?

That night Bob entered the room and took control, he was “The Bob”, again, impeccably dressed knowing just what to say to each of us to make us feel comfortable, when we should have been comforting him. He smiled, laughed and hugged everyone in the room, he commanded the room like only he could do and made the evening “easy”. During dinner he motioned for me to lean closer so he could be heard over the room noise and he said, “I hear your daughter Tess is a liberal, that makes me happy” and he winked and laughed. That’s how I’ll remember Bob Forbuss.

My thoughts today are with his close knit EMS family that grew up in the industry with him. I am sorry for your loss, Janet Smith, Deb Gault, Blake Laddusaw, Kathy Rundell, Jon Wilson, Mike Sherwood Matt Netski, John Graff, John Stanton, Don Hales, Carme Empringham and any others I failed to mention, I know you have lost someone very close to you.

By the way, Mercy did respond to multiple disasters during the years I was there and after, and staffing 10 -15 ambulances in twenty minutes was never a problem; employees came back to the main station on their own when any news of a significant event occurred – like Bob knew they would.

Steven Athey is the president of the EMS Consulting Firm, Health Care Visions. Steve has worked in the ambulance industry since 1971 and has managed large and small EMS organizations. Steve holds his undergraduate degree and his MBA from Texas Wesleyan University, where he holds an adjunct faculty position in the School of Business. Steve can be reached at slathey@hcvems.com

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