Ambulance Squads Feel the Pinch

A battle with many fronts — few volunteers, long drives, not enough time
Some South Fork ambulance companies have struggled to maintain necessary numbers of volunteers to properly respond to ever-increasing demands for their services. Carrie Ann Salvi

    Fire departments in East Hampton Town have been working together to try to answer all ambulance calls, but they struggle to do so, with shortages of volunteers particularly acute during daytime hours.
    The Springs Fire Department is short on volunteers for all units, with 85 members covering the hamlet with the most full-time residents, Chief John Claflin said on Monday. One hundred members were determined to be ideal for the fire district, a number it hasn’t had in 25 years, he said. Calls that come in during the day are the hardest to fill, the chief said, because Springs doesn’t have much of a business district from which people can run out to answer them.
    The same people do most of the calls, Chief Claflin said. While a fire call can result in only an hour of a volunteer’s time, a summer ambulance call may take about three hours from the time a pager goes off to the return from Southampton Hospital. From Montauk, it can take even longer.
    However, since a paid system would result in an increase in taxes, the departments short on ambulance volunteers have been getting by with assistance from other departments thanks to a mutual aid agreement.
    It’s a “wonderful co-existence here . . . a mutual admiration society,” said Mary Ellen McGuire, chief of the East Hampton Ambulance Association. The departments all help one another, with no consistency of who needs the help on any given day.
    Amagansett’s Chief P.J. Cantwell said the department is “mixing and matching crews” — a driver from Springs and an E.M.T. from East Hampton Village, for example. The dispatch center and fire department coordinate every time there is a call.
    “We can always use volunteers, especially in summer,” Chief Cantwell said. It’s difficult, he said, “because you are asking so much of them.” With summertime traffic, you’re asking someone to take two or three hours out of the day for each call. Even in an ambulance with lights and sirens, it can take up to 45 minutes to get to Southampton. When the work is done at the hospital, the return trip, without emergency lights, can take well over an hour. Still, his department is better off than Montauk, he said, where the trip can take up to five hours in summer.
    Add training to the mix — initially two nights a week — plus hospital time, department meetings, company meetings, drills, parades, and funerals, and “it’s quite a commitment to get anyone to join,” Chief Cantwell said. “We are thankful for the ones we have.” The greater the numbers, the greater the chance that someone will be available.
    “We can always use more,” Chief McGuire said of her own ambulance association, which currently has about 50 active members. “We run over 1,300 calls a year, the most out here,” she said on Tuesday, “up 40 calls from last year.” In her experience, too, shortages of volunteers tend to occur during the day, when people are working.
    Chief Claflin hopes to get more young people involved, he said, people who will stick around. With the six months of training it takes for a volunteer to become an E.M.T., it is frustrating to lose one. If five volunteers come in, he said, two or three usually stay. Some move, some retire, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out with family life or work. Others find it to be the greatest part of their lives, and they “live to do it,” he said. Volunteers can choose when they are assigned to be on call. Some may go out on three or four calls a night.
    Volunteers must have a valid New York State driver’s license, reside within the fire district, and go out on a certain percentage of calls to stay active. It is still possible for those who go south for the winter to make up their numbers of calls in spring, summer, or fall, Chief Claflin said.
    Volunteers are required to attend ongoing training classes pertaining to cardiac problems, pediatrics, and geriatrics, for example, “to stay at the top of their game,” Chief McGuire said. Initial E.M.T. training also includes fire safety drills.
    In return, a state program provides benefits based on a point system that keeps track of the number of calls a volunteer goes out on. Those who volunteer for 20 or 30 years of service may be eligible for a retirement at the age of 62. Most departments offer the use of a firehouse gym, and Springs offers one at Body Tech in Amagansett and Montauk. Volunteers are also given a free annual physical, and those who volunteer for five or more years receive 10 percent off their school and property taxes, Chief Claflin said.
    Chief McGuire said the next available E.M.T. class won’t be until September, but volunteers who joined now could begin with C.P.R. training, first aid, and a few different prerequisite classes, available either online or in-house. Volunteers could also begin to ride in an ambulance, get a physical, and ensure that their immunizations are up to date.
    “It’s a big commitment,” Chief McGuire said, but for the right person, it’s a great opportunity to meet others, fulfill potential, and experience the rewards of helping the community. Volunteers from the various departments often meet outside of a call, whether by attending a continuing education class in Sag Harbor or a weekend class in Hauppauge. Most of the departments also invite volunteers from another department when they have speakers that will fulfill a continuing education requirement.
    Volunteers are of both genders, from the ages of 20 to 70, and from all walks of life, Chief McGuire said. However, “not everyone can have a cool head in a crisis situation,” she warned.
    Chief Cantwell and Chief McGuire agreed that they go on a lot of calls that are not medical emergencies. Taking volunteers and an ambulance out of service for a sprained finger, Chief McGuire said, “is an injustice to the community.” And with all calls going to Southampton Hospital, a satellite facility would be helpful, Mr. Cantwell said.
    Chief Claflin, who is also a police officer, goes on ambulance calls on his days off. He’s getting ready to retire soon. “It’s been rewarding,” he said, “but it’s my time to pass the hat.”