Ambulance Services Adapt To Meet Summer Demand

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A majority of the members of the Sag Harbor Village Ambulance Association, photographed at their headquarters on Monday, September 16th, 2019

As the East End’s volunteer ambulance services juggle increasing annual call volumes against a corps of volunteers facing growing constraints on their own time, they continue to look for creative ways to meet demand for their services.

The good news, representatives of the East End’s volunteer ambulance companies say, is that while calls have continued to rise from year to year as the East End’s year-round population grows, the summer season just past — as measured from Memorial Day to Labor Day — was generally in line with expectations.

In addition, a system implemented by all East End agencies in recent years to augment their volunteer rolls with paid paramedics and EMTs has paid dividends by having highly trained professionals available immediately for calls, especially during the daytime hours when many volunteers are at work and unable to respond.

Still, many officials said they are relying increasingly on hiring additional professional EMTs to serve alongside paid paramedics, college students home for the summer, and other volunteers, who agree to drive, but do not want to submit to the arduous demands of EMT training, to make sure they have crews ready to roll when a call comes in.

The East Hampton Village Ambulance Association, which is a separate entity from the East Hampton Fire Department, recently announced that its ranks had been augmented by three members of the fire department who had signed on to serve as volunteer drivers.

“For us, it is really humongous,” said the association’s chief, Lisa Charde, of the extra help. She added that the association currently has a policy in place that requires all new members to become EMTs, which requires about 170 hours of coursework, plus regular refresher courses. “We are thinking of changing that,” she said of the policy. “In the meantime, the fire drivers are helping to make a big difference.”

The Amagansett Fire Department, like many others across the East End, hires professional paramedics to cover round-the-clock shifts seven days a week. But it also has paid EMTs, who serve from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. With an EMT on call at the firehouse, and a paramedic in a first responder car, the department is able to respond to calls with a two-person crew, according to 1st Assistant Chief Chris Beckert.

Amagansett, like many others on the East End, struggles to hold onto volunteers because of the high cost of housing. “People can’t afford to live in our district, and the people who do, have to work out of district,” said Chief Beckert, noting that without the paid staffers, it would be difficult to consistently pull together a crew in a timely manner.

Finding volunteers at home during the day is also a problem in Springs, where paid paramedics are on duty during the day, but drivers can be hard to find. “Our daytime drivers are fairly limited,” said Springs Fire Department Chief Darrin Downs. “We have two or three retired gentlemen who probably run 90 percent of our daytime calls.”

Chief Downs added that Springs is a classic bedroom community, with most residents working out of district. The problem for those who remain, is that responding is time-consuming. “By the time you get to the firehouse, go to the scene, assist, and drive to the hospital, it’s a three-hour call,” he said.

Although the average time spent on calls may be high, in Bridgehampton, the ambulance company, with 25 members, is the largest in the fire department, thanks in part to a broad-based effort to recruit more members by easing some requirements.

“Three years ago, we started looking at our policies,” said Captain Taylor Vescey. “If you joined the ambulance company, you had to become an EMT in two years. We felt there was no reason to turn away people who want to help in some way.”

So the department began to allow new members who signed up to train as drivers, but not study for their EMT license. The driver, Ms. Vescey said, is an often overlooked member of the crew. “If you don’t have a driver, you aren’t getting anywhere,” she said.

Chief Scott Flynn of the East Quogue Fire Department, which like Bridgehampton has an ambulance company that is part of the fire department, said he has seen the number of volunteers decline over the years because many people are working two or three jobs just to be able to remain in the area, and cannot continue to dedicate the time needed to keep up their EMT certification.

As a result, the district recently changed its bylaws to allow people to join as ambulance drivers, provided they also agree to train as fire police. “We’re still looking for the young guy who is all gung-ho,” he said, “but we also want to attract the newly retired, or people who don’t think they can commit to wearing a pack and carrying a hose down a hall or the time required to become an EMT.”

Like many of those interviewed, Robert Bancroft, the chief of the Westhampton Beach War Memorial Ambulance, said about half of his corps’s 1,300 total annual calls come during the summer months. “Memorial Day is really our kickoff,” he said. “That’s when everyone comes out.”

Fortunately, he added, that’s when many college students come home for the summer as well. “Our college kids are irreplaceable in the summertime,” he said. “They come out and answer a ton of calls.”

Like other providers, Westhampton has paid paramedics on staff, but Chief Bancroft said the association still relies heavily on volunteers to round out its crews.

“We’re only as good as the crew that shows up,” he said, adding that, at a minimum, a volunteer driver has to show up or the call has to be put out to a neighboring agency to provide mutual aid. The chief said it was a testament to the quality of the organization’s volunteers that only about 2 percent of its annual calls require help from a neighboring group, despite the size of Westhampton’s district.

Chris Epley, the chief of the Southampton Village Volunteer Ambulance, which serves that village, said about 45 percent of its annual calls come during the summer. Like Westhampton, his group relies on college students to help fill the gap during the summer months, he said.

“Our ambulance is pretty much staffed by volunteers, except for the first responder,” he said. “The biggest issue we have is during the winter months, when our younger members are not around. We have a lot of drivers, but not that many who are certified as EMTs.”

Mr. Epley said it is important for volunteer organizations to continue aggressively courting younger members. “We have no residency requirements, and while some of our members might live just outside the district, others live as far away as Ronkonkoma, but are willing to come and stay at headquarters for 12 hours,” he said.

“We strongly encourage everyone to become an EMT,” he added. “But every year, more and more gets added to the curriculum. It has become a big process.”

The Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps caps its membership at 40, but Deborah O’Brien, the organization’s president, said it currently has 30 volunteers.

“We don’t require people to become an EMT, but we do encourage it,” Ms. O’Brien said. If a new member wants to serve as a driver only, they are required to serve a year’s probationary period, during which, they will ride in the back of the ambulance as a helper to become acquainted with the procedures of a typical call.

“It has become more taxing on volunteers,” Ms. O’Brien said of the requirements to remain certified as an EMT, which need to be renewed every three years.

Like other services, Sag Harbor has a paid paramedic on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The reason, Ms. O’Brien said, is that calls and the services provided have become more complex — and time consuming, with many calls lasting over two hours. “Employers just can’t afford to let their workers leave for that long,” she said.

Phil Cammann, a paramedic who oversees the paid staff of the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance, which serves the Southampton Fire District, excluding the incorporated village, said for the first time this year, in addition to its paid 24/7 paramedic, the agency hired a paid EMT to serve as a driver and work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. from mid-May through mid-
September.

“It was very well received by the volunteers because it took some of that pressure off them if they were tight for time or there was a second call going on,” he said.

Last year, Mr. Cammann said the ambulance corps had two volunteers who each responded to 400 calls. “It was taxing on them,” he said, “but this takes the burden off them a little bit.”

Looking back to 1989, when he was the organization’s founding chief, Mr. Cammann said there were about 350 calls per year. Now, he said the group handles about 1,000 calls per year.

“Having a hybrid system of both paid and volunteers, especially in the summer, is fantastic,” he added.

Mr. Cammann argued that despite the increased costs that come with hiring paid staff, “it’s still a very cost-effective system.”

Plus, he added, it is an efficient one. “With a paid paramedic, within a couple minutes of a call going out, you’ve got the equivalent of an emergency room at the scene,” he said of the well-equipped first responder cars most districts now employ.

Typically, the paramedic arrives about 10 minutes before the ambulance does, and during that window, “we could be doing significant medical procedures and coordinating any resources that are needed.”

Steve Tringali, the chief of the Hampton Bays Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said his group is one of the busiest on the East End and answers as many as 1,600 calls per year, with a big chunk of them coming during the summer months.

Like others, Hampton Bays has paid paramedics on duty as well as a paid EMT/driver during the day. “Between 9 and 5, it’s difficult,” he said. “We definitely see a decrease in volunteer involvement during the daytime. That’s because 75 percent of my membership is working 9 to 5, sometimes two jobs.” He said a handful of retired members round out the crews on the majority of their calls.

Mark Dunleavy, chief of the Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said his group is seeing more and more calls each and every year, with many coming during the summer months when there is an uptick in the number of car accidents on the busy roads in its district. He estimated that last year, the corps answered nearly 1,200 calls and that number may rise to 1,400 this year.

Flanders, like other districts, has paid paramedics on call around the clock, but also employs paid EMTs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, when many volunteers are out of district at their jobs. The district has also been helped by the availability of a first responder car from the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, he said.

“They are a huge help,” Chief Dunleavy said of paid responders, “but they eat into the budget of the district.” He said that Flanders is one of the busiest ambulance services, but it has one of the smallest budgets of any local ambulance providers — about $600,000. It is difficult to raise additional money because much of the land in the district is preserved as parkland or pine barrens, and its housing stock is assessed at much lower rates than other parts of town.

Despite what he says is a general trend toward fewer volunteers because of the many pressures, financial and otherwise, confronting residents, Mr. Dunleavy said he did not envision a time when volunteers would ever completely disappear from the East End.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see day where you have a fully paid department like New York City,” he said, pointing out that despite the obstacles they face, there are still a surprising number of people willing to make the sacrifices the work requires. “Farther west, where you are seeing 4,000, 5,000 calls a year, I can see them shifting” to paid services, he said.

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