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Ambulance Volunteers Exit as East Hampton Village Seeks Control

Thu, 03/16/2023 - 09:43

Ambulance corps divided over new department

The East Hampton Village ambulance serves not only the village but also the Northwest Fire District and other areas of East Hampton outside of the village.
Durell Godfrey

Nearly a quarter of the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association’s volunteer corps has resigned since the East Hampton Village Board introduced a plan on March 2 to create a new Department of Emergency Medical Services to oversee the ambulance service.

Nine people have left and still more are reportedly mulling an exit in the next few months. The departures come on top of a year in which, according to village records, the attrition rate was already steep.

The total number of volunteers has declined from 47 in December of 2021 to 31 after this week’s exodus.

A public hearing on the legislation to create the department will be held Friday at 11 a.m. in the Emergency Services Building during the monthly East Hampton Village Board meeting.

“I feel like we’re sending a 911 call to the community. We’ve responded to them all these years and now we need them to come forward and respond for us,” said Geraldine Merola, a volunteer who recently resigned. She has served in the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association for the last two years after serving with the Sag Harbor ambulance for seven. She will be receiving her paramedic license in June but will use her skills with the Bridgehampton and Springs ambulances. She hopes people show up at the hearing to speak against the legislation.

“For 48 years prior to this administration we had a cooperative relationship with the village,” she said in a phone call.

The Town of East Hampton pays the village for ambulance service to the Northwest Fire District and other areas of East Hampton outside the village, and Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said this week that he is not thrilled about the shakeup. “I don’t understand why they’re making any changes or moves.”

“It should be a concern for everyone in this town that there’s a conflict over providing emergency services to the community,” he said. “I don’t see a benefit. I see significant risks. I don’t think you’re going to get better care than from people who do it for altruistic reasons, because they want to serve their community, versus someone who is after a paycheck.”

“We’re not going to lose as many people as expected,” Mayor Jerry Larsen said. “The worst-case scenario is we lose 12, which would leave us with 28 volunteers. We’re happy with that. Mary Mott, our new ambulance chief, has the night tour squads all set with the remaining volunteers.”

“We have eight night squads, which is more than any other department on the East End,” said Ms. Mott. “Those are skeleton crews, a driver and one E.M.T. Do we wish we had one or two more people on each? Yes, we do. But I can’t worry about what has happened. I need to focus in a positive way on how I can make the department stronger moving forward.”

Three ex-chiefs have departed since the legislation was proposed. Eight of the nine people who resigned were emergency medical technicians, one was an advanced E.M.T., and four were also drivers. One member handled 410 calls alone in 2022.

Mayor Larsen said the village would announce the addition of a new paid paramedic at Friday’s meeting. In August, it hired another for $67,000.

A paid paramedic is in the Emergency Services Building around the clock.

The mayor plans to hire two full-time E.M.T.s by the summer. “And then we have our per diem employees,” he said. “We’ll be fully staffed.”

“How do you explain that to taxpayers?” asked Ms. Merola. “You now have paid full-time employees providing a service that you used to get for free from volunteers.”

The village may ultimately raise money by charging for ambulance rides, an option the mayor has said the village is exploring.

However, it might prove optimistic to think the village could find and retain the hires it needs.

Hiring for all industries has been difficult on the East End since Covid began. “The hospital has lost 50 percent of doctors and physician assistants who live between Montauk and Southampton in the last 18 months,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. “How is the village going to attract paid employees when no one can find housing right now?”

One way the village hopes to attract employees is with a $17,000 recruitment video that the mayor said should be approved at Friday’s meeting.

“It’s something brand-new we’re trying to put out and get up on social media. A lot of people may not know the ambulance needs help. We can now recruit new drivers as well. You don’t have to be an E.M.T. to be an ambulance driver anymore,” he said.

The East Hampton Village Ambulance Association had relatively strict requirements for drivers, requiring them, in part, to be trained as E.M.T.s after two years of driving.

“This opens up a lot more opportunities for volunteering. You might get people who start out driving and decide they want to become an E.M.T. We can expose them to it and reduce barriers,” the mayor said. “The E.H.V.A.A. is there to provide morale. They can help people come together.”

The next step will be for the association to negotiate a fee from the village for providing recruitment, training, and “brotherhood” to ambulance members.

But the members who resigned said the association was about much more than morale.

Sheila Dunlop was a member for 34 years before resigning this week. “It’s extremely sad,” she said. “I loved every minute of it until I didn’t.”

She described a meeting on March 8, between Mayor Larsen and the ambulance association. “I felt he had a condescending tone,” she said. “He kept telling us we could have our dinners. When we have our meetings, and the room is full of E.M.S. people, I can tell you not a single one is concerned about the dinners. It was a slap in the face.”

“I have a feeling when the mayor looks at us, he really has no idea who we are,” said Ms. Merola. “He led with talk about parties. Do you really think we’re in this for the parties? They’re not that great. You join to practice medicine and be here for the community.”

“People want to serve their community,” agreed Mayor Larsen. “And changing the organizational structure of the ambulance doesn’t get in the way of that.”

 

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