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Town Must Wade Into Ambulance Mess

Wed, 02/21/2024 - 16:02


A hearing was held on Friday evening at which the county’s public safety board was to evaluate the geographical boundaries of East Hampton Village’s ambulance service area. What the Suffolk County Regional Emergency Medical Services Council got instead was a look at a fractured ambulance corps — and a glimpse at the inexplicable recklessness with which the village has handled its selfless volunteers.

About a year and a half ago, East Hampton Village Mayor Jerry Larsen initiated a takeover of the ambulance service, which had been provided since the 1970s not by a municipal department or by the Fire Department but by a nonprofit organization that contracted with the village and the town. Why he wanted to bring the ambulance under municipal control is not 100 percent clear. He and the village’s lawyers have said it was just organizational housecleaning, motivated by a desire to improve 911 response times, but the statistics about calls run and organizational efficiency don’t seem to bear that out.

In any case, the affair was, by any yardstick — and by the village’s own admission at an earlier public hearing at LTV Studios last spring — poorly handled. About a quarter of the longtime volunteers quit and a handful more were dismissed. Some felt interrogated when called in to individual meetings at which, oddly, the village attorney and/or chief of police were present. A group who left the village’s new responding ambulance department but intended to remain members of the nonprofit organization said they had been locked out of their meeting and office space and denied access to their own files.

The whole imbroglio could be brushed aside as small-town stuff, a tempest in a teapot, if it didn’t present a genuine public safety problem. Since the takeover, Mr. Larsen and some other village employees have received training to serve as ambulance drivers, and indeed have been responding regularly to 911 calls. This may be impressive and selfless — but it is also clear from radio traffic that the mayor has to drive the ambulance regularly because his own takeover has resulted in reduced numbers of volunteers.

More important than the issue of paid village employees leaving their desks to go on ambulance runs is the issue of the village’s ambulance service to the town, beyond village boundaries, in Northwest Woods and to the north and west of village lines. How the village ambulance functions has a critical impact on the ambulance care tendered to large numbers of town residents.

It may be too late to remediate this situation for 2024, but Suffolk County officials must consider alternatives going forward. Perhaps the surrounding districts — Springs, Sag Harbor, Amagansett, and Bridgehampton — might take a bite out of the East Hampton Town service areas that have until now been covered by the village ambulance. Or perhaps those who left the service in the dustup can form a new nonprofit and apply to become the responding agency for the town zones instead.

The East Hampton Town Board collects hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes from property owners who live in those zones (the fire protection and water supply districts) each year. The town board can no longer in good conscience sit on the sidelines, just spectating as the village drama plays out.


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