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New Ambulance Department May Spark Rebellion

Thu, 03/09/2023 - 12:35

Many volunteers see trouble in village’s proposal

East Hampton Village police, a paid medic, and ambulance volunteers responding to a call in 2020
Durell Godfrey

Legislation introduced at last week’s East Hampton Village Board meeting could bring big changes to the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association. The law will be the subject of a public hearing on Friday, March 17. Without a dissenting voice on the board, it will likely be approved immediately after.

Work sessions are rarely attended by members of the public, and the rollout is a fast one for a law that would restructure an ambulance corps that has been operating since 1975.

The law creates a standalone Ambulance Department “to provide a municipal paid and volunteer general ambulance service in the village and contracted-for areas of the Town of East Hampton.” At present the ambulance falls under the Emergency Services Department, which includes the Fire Department and emergency communications.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposed legislation involves the appointment of officers. For the past 48 years, chiefs have been voted in by the association’s members. The new law instead gives that power to the village board, which will appoint officers annually.

The draft legislation so alarmed a faction of the ambulance corps that it scheduled an emergency meeting at the East Hampton Library on Sunday. All 24 members in attendance were opposed to the legislation, and claimed that five additional members, not in attendance, supported their position. The association has about 40 active members.

Highlighting the divide between the rank and file and their current chiefs, who were voted in only a few months ago, neither Mary Mott, the ambulance chief, nor Mary Ellen McGuire, the assistant chief, were invited to attend the meeting. Also not making the invite list were the assistant captain, a second lieutenant, and the treasurer.

Roughly 70 percent of ambulance volunteers appear to be rebelling against their newly-elected leadership.

Attempting to quell this rebellion, Village Mayor Jerry Larsen held a meeting with the executive board of the association on Monday night, and was to meet again with the general membership of the association yesterday.

“This is the only department in the village of East Hampton where the village board has no say over what they do,” he said. “Yet at the end of the day, the board of trustees and I are responsible for the safety of our residents.”

“I don’t think this is such a terrible thing. I believe it’s long overdue,” Ms. Mott said in a phone call. “It says everything that needs to be said about our relationship. Many people are going to disagree, and I can’t help that.”

All agree however, that the relationship between Mayor Larsen’s administration and the ambulance association has been tense for the last two years, and that communication has been strained. The pandemic, the flight of local families, and an aging volunteer corps have been the difficult backdrop of the communication breakdown.

A steady drumbeat of incidents over the last year, between the administration and the association, has further marred the relationship.

The mayor claims he has tried to speak directly to the association and blames the former chiefs for the issues. This fall, seeking a workaround, he emailed every association member inviting them to meet. Some accepted his invitation, some did not.

Ambulance association members point the blame back at him and his administration. “We’ve had a formal relationship with the village for over 40 years and it has never been adversarial until recently,” said Lisa Charde, a former ambulance association chief and de facto spokesperson for those who oppose the proposed changes.

Ms. Charde has been with the association for 25 years, filling different leadership roles along the way, most notably as chief during the pandemic. In a text she said it “was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.” Of late, she has become the mayor’s bête noire.

In July, the mayor was embarrassed when the Springs ambulance, not the village ambulance, responded to an emergency at a Main Beach event. Police Chief Michael Tracey sent a picture of the Springs truck to Ann Grabowski, then the chief of the association, with the words, “Not a good look.”

The membership was stung by what it perceived as unfair criticism and instead blamed the administration for allowing two of its ambulances to overheat, by failing to air-condition the bays where they are parked. In turn, the village accused Ms. Grabowski of not alerting officials to the situation to begin with.

In August, the tension between the all-volunteer association and paid paramedics, who fall under village jurisdiction, was laid bare when a longtime volunteer, Randy Hoffman, was suspended by the association after he questioned the need for the paid workers in an exchange with one of them.

“The restructuring will put paid people and volunteers under the leadership of the ambulance chief,” Mayor Larsen said this week. “Previously paid ambulance people were under the Police Department and there was this ‘us versus them’ mentality that developed. We hope by putting them under one chief it will help build relationships.”

In the midst of the summer tensions, the village was working behind the scenes to transfer the “certificate of need” from the association to the village. The ambulance association hired a lawyer this fall to challenge the transfer.

“The idea that they had the license changed without notifying us, it led to a lack of trust,” said Ms. Charde.

Thus far, their challenge has gone nowhere and their lawyer has failed to respond to a January letter from Brad Pinsky, a lawyer hired by the village to transfer the certificate away from the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association.

Finally, instead of sending the ambulance association its share of money the village received from the town earlier this year to provide ambulance service, the village trustees withheld the money, saying they would dispense it only when the association agreed to a contract of service with the village.

Ms. Charde believes the changes are about eventually charging patients for ambulance rides, an issue that many volunteers have signaled would lead to a walkout.

“You have my word, there are no current plans to charge anybody,” said Mayor Larsen. “If we get to that point we will meet with the association before we decide to do anything. We don’t know the costs. This is not about that.”

Many in the association fear, however, that their concerns would not be heard, and the matter would be decided solely by the village board and the ambulance chief. Under the new law, the chief has the power to make decisions without requiring a vote of the association.

“Operational control can’t be a debatable issue. It can’t be the chief wants to do something that’s better for the community but if the membership doesn’t like it, they can vote it down,” said Mayor Larsen. “There’s not going to be any more elections. Mary Mott and Mary Ellen McGuire will put together a list of recommendations on who they want to be captains, lieutenants, and the membership. The village board will approve those recommendations. It’s not going to be a popularity contest.”

He pointed to a letter from then-village administrator, Larry Cantwell, to Ms. Charde from 2004, in which Mr. Cantwell urged the ambulance association to incorporate as a nonprofit whose purpose was to “promote and encourage brotherhood, guidance and training among volunteer ambulance workers.”

“The association can stay,” said Mayor Larsen. “They’re supposed to be a fraternal organization like the P.B.A., but I’m not going into another season where they have operational control.” He says the association is welcome to continue to use its dedicated spaces inside the Emergency Services Building.

“We’ve had ups and downs in the past,” said Ms. Mott. “This moment could send us into a more difficult time, but gradually we’ll get new members. A critical problem? No. But a potential problem. I don’t agree that the village is taking over. I feel they’re putting in writing something that has always been in place.”

Mayor Larsen hopes the volunteers remain. The big question is how many may choose to leave if the legislation is passed.

The village provided volunteers a handout explaining the new law. They were asked to decide if they will continue with the association and, if not, were instructed to hand in their emergency medical service equipment and clothing by May 1, setting up the potential challenge of needing to rebuild an all-volunteer organization from the top down weeks before Memorial Day.

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