By Mara Certic
As the number of tourists visiting each weekend increases across the East End, so does the traffic and with it, traffic violations. While residents complain of illegal U-turns, a disregard for traffic laws and dangerous drivers, first responders across the East End are finding that the huge crowds are slowing them down during the crucial first minutes of emergency calls.
On Saturday, July 4, as partygoers at Kevin Sorbo’s house on Middle Line Highway were posting photos and videos of rapper Ja Rule performing, members of the Bridgehampton Fire Department and an ambulance were trying to navigate through the mob to respond to separate calls of a brushfire and a drug overdose at the property.
The hundreds of people at the party seemed unconcerned by the fire. One video shows revelers singing along to the song “I’m Real” and the caption reads: “Ain’t no party like a #JaRule party! Murderrr. #Hamptons #brushfire #burningdownthehouse #sagharbor.” Firefighters had to approach the house from Old Sag Harbor Road after they realized that hundreds of people and cars could not be moved for them to easily access the property from Middle Line Highway.
“There were cars and people everywhere,” said First Assistant Chief Jeff White.
But the problem of cars not getting out of the way for emergency vehicles and volunteer first responders on the East End, Mr. White said, is not a new phenomenon.
“That’s basically always been a problem but it’s exacerbated now,” Mr. White said this week, adding that the more crowded it becomes, the more difficult getting to calls can be.
Mr. White said on Tuesday that before the weekend he had spoken to dispatchers who reported that already there had been approximately 100 more calls over the summer period this year than there were last year. He said that so far this year, crews of Bridgehampton EMTs have several times had to respond to calls straight from Southampton Hospital without having time to return to the firehouse. While that happened in the past, it was rare, he said.
Fire districts across the East End have seen similar increases, as more and more people descend on the area. In Montauk, where hundreds of residents this week attended a town board meeting to say the party scene has gotten out of control, emergency responders and ambulance drivers said that roadside parking and overcrowding at various nightclubs slows them down when responding to a call. One driver said that he has been behind the wheel of an ambulance with the lights and sirens on, when pedestrians have refused to yield to the emergency vehicle.
With bad driving adding to the already congested roads, travel time to Southampton Hospital can really add up. East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell said this week he has been in contact with Southampton Hospital to try and get an emergency facility in East Hampton to lessen the travel time for emergency vehicles from Montauk and other East Hampton locations.
Mary Ellen McGuire, who has volunteered as an EMT in East Hampton for over a decade, noticed that in particular in the summertime, many of the people on the road don’t pull over for the green and blue courtesy lights of volunteer EMTs.
“It’s a huge problem and like anything else, my feeling was that ignorance causes a lot of the problems we have here,” Ms. McGuire said this week.
“A lot of local people know,” she said, because more often or not a close friend or family member is a member of a local department. “But a lot of people who are visiting don’t understand that we’re an emergency organization. A few years ago, emergency services ran a media campaign to educate visitors that if you see a green or blue light, you should pull over to the right. “Nothing came of that,” Ms. McGuire said.
Then this year, she had the idea to post that information for everyone driving into town to see. A large sign that reads “Help Us Help You. Blue or Green light move to the right. We are volunteers responding to an emergency,” sponsored by Brown Harris Stevens Real Estate, was recently put up at the rest area on Montauk Highway just east of Osteria Salina restaurant in Wainscott.
“I’m hoping if we can educate them we will see a difference,” Ms. McGuire said. Starting this campaign, which she worked on with Florence Stone and Theresa Lawler, was “better than being complacent, doing nothing and just getting frustrated,” she said.
When Ms. McGuire spoke to Mr. Cantwell about the sign, she said that he suggested fire departments also put them up in front of their buildings. Departments in Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor have decided to follow suit.
“People don’t want to pull over, even for an ambulance,” said Debbie O’Brien, vice-president of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
Ms. O’Brien, who has volunteered in the ambulance corps for 33 years, said that there has been a 20-percent increase in the number of calls this summer compared to the same period in 2014. While traffic, congestion or aloof drivers have not prevented responders from getting to an emergency call, there have been delays and there have been near misses on the way to the hospital, she said.
“The courtesy’s not there anymore,” she said.