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Suffolk County to Set Ambulance Boundaries for East Hampton

Thu, 02/22/2024 - 17:29

East Hampton E.M.S. feud reignites at hearing

Teresa Bertha spoke in front of the REMSCO board, displaying the document she claims got her ousted from East Hampton Village's Department of Emergency Medical Services.
Christopher Gangemi

“I haven’t really enjoyed what I heard tonight,” said Mayor Jerry Larsen at a public hearing held by the Suffolk County Regional Emergency Medical Services Council on Friday at LTV Studios in Wainscott. The hearing, ostensibly about a technicality concerning East Hampton Village’s ambulance service certificate, had morphed into a critique of the village’s new Emergency Medical Services Department.

To keep ambulance agencies from overlapping, each is required to have a service certificate that outlines the boundaries in which it works. East Hampton Village is looking to expand the new municipal ambulance service’s area to include those areas of East Hampton Town, outside village boundaries, that had previously been served by the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association. The areas are known as the Northwest Fire Protection District and the East Hampton Water Supply Area. In order to serve the fire protection and water supply areas with ambulances, East Hampton Village needs approval from REMSCO.

A rift developed between village hall and members of the E.H.V.A.A. in 2022, when the operating certificate that had been held by the E.H.V.A.A. was transferred to the village — without notice, its officers claimed, to the nonprofit. Some members of E.H.V.A.A. alleged that the village had not taken the required administrative and legal steps to make the transfer.

The split expanded into an all-out war last spring when the village created an Emergency Medical Services Department, brought the ambulance service under the control of village hall, and relegated the E.H.V.A.A. to a “fraternal organization.” This caused more than a dozen volunteers, both drivers and emergency medical technicians, to quit. More volunteers have been dismissed from the service in the fallout, bringing the total of ex-village volunteers to around 20.

A petition to file a lawsuit against the village was rejected by the Suffolk County Supreme Court at the end of January, on the grounds that it had been filed after the deadline, but a group of former East Hampton Village first responders, led by Teresa Bertha, plans to appeal. The group raised the funds to do so this month with a GoFundMe page, but that GoFundMe page was shut down this week after the village complained that it was fraudulently representing E.H.V.A.A.

At the village board meeting earlier in the day, Mayor Larsen said, “If you receive a request from the E.H.V.A.A. to donate money, please do not. If you suspect it’s fraud, please contact the police.”

It was in this context of acrimony that REMSCO came to LTV Studios for its public hearing on Friday evening.

Brad Pinsky, a lawyer hired by the village, tried to limit the hearing to the topic of the village’s operating district.

“The village has served that territory prior to 1975, when the A.S.C. came into law,” he said. “It was always in the village name. When we realized it wasn’t in the A.S.C., we decided to clean it up and that’s why we’re here.”

East Hampton Town pays the village for ambulance service to the fire-protection and water districts; in previous years, those funds, which are raised through a tax to the public, were passed along to the E.H.V.A.A., which was the operating agency for decades. Every two years the coverage contract is negotiated and renewed.

Mr. Pinsky explained that there was no competing ambulance service that could cover those districts if East Hampton Village’s E.M.S. department were not awarded the A.S.C.

Perhaps surprisingly to those not well-versed in emergency-response matters, the majority of ambulance calls answered by the village ambulance service come from outside village boundaries. The village ambulance department serves not just Northwest Woods but also areas north of the village line, in the densely populated zone between North Main Street and the boundary with Springs, including Windmill Village, the mobile home park on Oakview Highway, and Accabonac Apartments.

“We have 40 years of need,” Mr. Pinsky said. “Call volume defines need. Our call volume is 1,400 to 1,500 per year. Over the decades, it only goes up. If we were pulled out of the town, there would be great public harm.”

Ms. Bertha spoke after Mr. Pinsky.

She immediately brought up the issue of mutual aid, the longstanding agreement among the various neighboring South Fork responding ambulance agencies, from Montauk to Southampton, that they will help one another out when unable to answer a given call.

“I was let go because of this,” Ms. Betha said, holding up a document that until recently was posted on a wall of the Emergency Services Building on Cedar Street. She said the document represented a change in the village ambulance mutual aid policy, discouraging paid ambulance personnel from going on mutual aid calls. “I am a resident of the Northwest district,” she said. “I don’t trust them. I told my family, if I get sick, don’t call the ambulance.”

Geraldine Merola, a volunteer who resigned last spring, spoke next, addressing the fact that the mayor and other employees of the Village of East Hampton have frequently been responding to ambulance calls, mainly as drivers, since the village took over.

“Medicine isn’t supposed to be about politics,” Ms. Merola said. “The mayor is an elected official. Only 1,500 people can vote for him and yet he’s crafting a policy for tens of thousands. They’re pulling municipal employees from their paid jobs to staff the ambulance. This is just not sustainable and they’re just too proud to admit that.” She provided the board with 342 letters from residents opposed to last year’s reorganization. “A lot of people like a 48-year history of meritorious service and they want to continue it,” she said.

“That was somewhat entertaining,” said Mr. Pinsky, after the women spoke.

Downplaying the rift, he told the REMSCO board that the E.H.V.A.A. is still in existence and comprised at present of 30 volunteers. “All that happened is that a couple people quit, a couple people joined.” He referred to Ms. Bertha and Ms. Merola as “vocal and disgruntled former people.”

Philip Cammann, a REMSCO board member, said, “You said everything was staying the same as far as contracts with the county and mutual aid with other districts.” Pointing to Ms. Bertha’s comments, he asked Mr. Pinsky to address the mutual aid policy.

“That policy is not true,” said Mr. Pinsky. “If the volunteer is not quick enough, the paid personnel respond.”

Later, Taylor Vecsey, a captain with the Bridgehampton Fire Department’s ambulance service, forced Mr. Pinsky to clarify, asking if the document Ms. Bertha referenced did not exist. Mr. Pinsky deferred to Mary Mott, whom the village recognizes as the chief of both the E.H.V.A.A. and the municipal responding agency. Ms. Mott said the document had been “weaponized.”

“The letter in question said the last paid provider, if there’s a mutual aid call, will stay in district. However, if a call of extreme importance comes in, any of those paid responders will go to that call. We have not stopped responding to mutual aids.”

“To be clear, it did exist,” said Ms. Vecsey. “The tenor of things did change.”

“The people who are here speaking negatively are not the real association,” said Mayor Larsen. “They are out raising money illegally to fund some coup. They think they’re going to get the money, buy an ambulance, and start responding.”

Ms. Bertha and others who left the service over the struggle with the municipality allege that the village took over the bank account of the E.H.V.A.A., which held more than $350,000.

“At some point, the village gave the E.H.V.A.A. operational control, and all I did was take it back,” the mayor responded. “We have no intention of billing, and no intention of doing anything beyond the contracted area we’ve had with the town for 40-something years.”

Edward Boyd, the hearing officer, said “out of an abundance of caution” he would hold the hearing open for written comments until tomorrow. “We shall make a considered decision based upon what we heard,” he said.


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