For residents concerned about the speed and ability of emergency medical care, the news that the East End Ambulance Coalition has proposed a significant improvement should be welcome. Some resistance has emerged, however, to its idea for a regional first-responder program, something that appears necessary and overdue.
The program would provide coverage in the four East Hampton fire districts as well as Bridgehampton’s and Sag Harbor’s. For many years the ambulance squads in these districts were all volunteer and a system of mutual aid among them was able to meet demands. This area’s aging, growing, and demographically changing population, coupled with ever-greater numbers of seasonal visitors, have strained these ambulance companies. They have struggled with training and recruitment and some have brought on paid paramedics.
As good as these always-ready paid personnel may be, new concerns are becoming apparent. As things stand, the paramedics are forbidden to cross district lines for any but the most serious and likely fatal calls. This jeopardizes the entire mutual aid system in two ways. First, some volunteer companies do not have advanced life support-qualified, or A.L.S., members. If an A.L.S. volunteer in a neighboring district is already at an emergency and cannot respond to a call for aid, there may be no one with adequate skills available — even though a paramedic might be sitting idle in another district. Second, maintaining A.L.S. readiness takes scores of hours of training and near-constant recertification; unfortunately, the presence of a single paid paramedic might be a subtle disincentive for those who would otherwise step up to serve or are conflicted about the commitment because of family or professional demands, or both. The proposed regional responder program could fill the gaps in coverage and get assistance to patients more rapidly.
A new tax district, encompassing areas from Bridgehampton to Montauk, would be created to pay for the program. The coalition has estimated that an initial annual budget of about $2.5 million would be enough to provide a 24-hour team of first responders able to go to any call that arises. Volunteers would continue to be essential, handling emergencies, driving ambulances, and doing other tasks.
Some jurisdictions, the Springs Fire Department, for example, and East Hampton Village, which controls its fire and ambulance services, appear cool to the idea. These positions are indefensible considering that in more than a few instances patients have waited far too long for qualified medical help to arrive.
Like the East Hampton Town and Village Police Departments, which provide professional service and do not hesitate to cross district lines when the need arises, the time appears to have come to give serious consideration to a regional first-responder system. In fact, police are often first on the scene at ambulance calls and have privately expressed frustration at the delays. If the districts continue to balk, officials in East Hampton and Southampton Towns need to step in and use whatever leverage they can to seek this much-needed modernization, even creating fire-responder services in their Police Departments if that is what it takes.
Community comes first, as one of the backers of the regional plan recently said. Providing the best and fastest care possible should be the top priority.