Volunteerism’s Decline Affects Budgeting for Emergency Services


A declining pool of citizens who are willing and able to volunteer for community service is beginning to complicate the way Sag Harbor has to plan its budget for emergency services.

“People aren’t volunteering anymore,” commented Mayor Sandra Schroeder last week as the Village Board met with department heads to go over the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2019-2020. The participants included fire and ambulance officials who said they are facing more calls for service with fewer people to handle them.

“It’s the new group,” the mayor said of recently arrived residents who don’t have the time or the interest.

“To that point, Sandra,” replied ambulance corps chief Deborah O’Brien, “we’re supposed to have 40 people in the ambulance corps. We have 29, with more and more calls.”

“I know. It’s the new way of the world,” the mayor added.

Part-time paid emergency medical technicians (EMT) and paramedics on the ambulance corps staff cover calls that volunteers may not be on hand to take, Ms. O’Brien explained. But those professionals want full-time work and they can find it in other ambulance corps nearby. Sag Harbor, meanwhile, keeps losing them as the only ambulance corps in the region with no fulltime positions.

Ms. O’Brien asked that a line be added to the budget to fund a full-time EMT or paramedic, which she said would be a wash in terms pay for the three part-timer who would be replaced. But it would require up to $40,000 a year in benefits, including medical coverage for a married person, which part-timers don’t get.

“It’s crazy,” Trustee Ken O’Donnell commented. “We were sitting here five years ago, when Brian [Gilbride] was mayor, saying us hiring a part-time EMT was going to be the end of volunteerism. And now, five years later, we’re talking about the village being pillaged by people getting hired full-time. You’re only talking five years. It’s crazy.”

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Miller also said the department hoped to acquire a new chief’s vehicle with the old vehicle being reserved for an elected “duty captain” to help answer the soaring number of calls the entirely volunteer department receives, topping 500 a year for the past several years.

Ms. O’Brien said in an interview this week that her 29 volunteers put in an average of 552 hours of training and work a year, with many of them putting in far more hours than that. The corps is supposed to have 40 members, according to the Village Code regulating it, she said, but “it’s hard to find people. Everybody has to work. People have two jobs. They don’t have time.”

There also “are people moving into the community,” she added, who are “not volunteer-type people.” The people who are tearing down modest houses and rebuilding them “are not the people who are volunteering.”

Meanwhile, she said, “Those willing to volunteer have to work so hard just to stay here.”