Drop-Off in E.M.T. Numbers

Alan Burke is on a recruitment mission to sign up more volunteers for the emergency medical service unit
Alan Burke is on a recruitment mission to sign up more volunteers for the emergency medical service unit of the Montauk Fire Department. Janis Hewitt

    The number of emergency medical service volunteers is dropping rapidly in the Montauk Fire Department. With a troubled economy, the problem has escalated as many residents are forced to work two or three jobs and have no time to volunteer. With some members pushing 60 to 70 years old, longtime volunteers are aging out of the department. The training is tough but very rewarding, said Alan Burke, the captain of Company Four, in charge of the ambulance crew.
    Unless more people in the community sign on with the department, Mr. Burke foresees taxpayers footing the bill to hire a full-time paramedic or emergency medical technician within five years. To help combat the reduced numbers, the fire departments in Amagansett, Montauk, Springs, East Hampton, and Sag Harbor initiated about a year ago a mutual aid system that allows volunteers from other hamlets and villages to respond if they’re available.
    “So people shouldn’t be surprised if they see an East Hampton ambulance responding to a call in Montauk,” Mr. Burke said.
    At present there are 117 firefighters and 13 E.M.T.s in Montauk. Six of them have dual training in both fields. “God bless them,” Mr. Burke said, adding that in 2011 there were 700 emergency medical service calls. Each volunteer is required to respond to 10 percent of all calls and is on call from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. every eighth night.
    The training to be an E.M.T. is grueling, Mr. Burke said. “It almost scares them away. You really have to want to do it.” Classes begin in September of each year and run twice a week through March. In fact, one class was graduating on Tuesday evening.
    It takes a dedicated person to commit, he said, adding that on the first night of training about 10 people show up, and after orientation only 2 might return. Retirees are welcome to train as long as they are physically able to perform the job.
    Once certified, a volunteer must continue with the training and take a mandatory refresher course three years later. After that, the volunteers must participate in continuing medical education to maintain competence and learn about new techniques and developments in the field. That involves many hours of lectures and core teaching.
    “The average burnout is about four years,” said Mr. Burke, who has been a member of the fire department for 39 years, 25 of them as an E.M.T. “My back couldn’t take it anymore. I finally realized it was smarter to run out of a burning building rather than run into one,” he said with a laugh.
    Once the initial training is complete, volunteers remain on probation for the first year. “You have to know whether they’ll make it through,” the captain said. But, if they do, there are benefits, with the most recent being that volunteers can sign on to the Town of East Hampton’s health insurance policy, a good one with few deductibles and lower co-pay amounts. Moreover, members receive a $600 break on their property taxes, he said.
    When a volunteer retires at the age of 65, they receive $30 a month per each year served. Members also pay a one-time fee to join a benevolent association. The amount accrues over the years, so that a $10,000 payment is delivered to the family upon a volunteer’s death.
    Relationships are built up over the years with the police department, the officers of which are usually the first on the scene, and the Coast Guard. “We watch out for each other. The camaraderie in a department is unbelievable. It’s like a family,” Mr. Burke said.
    A recruitment meeting with all the information about volunteering will be held on May 2 at 7 p.m. at the firehouse.