“A fireman is a fireman, and when somebody calls for help you try to help, and I feel like we got that call,” said Tom Bock, one of three new drivers with the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association, courtesy of the East Hampton Fire Department.
Mr. Bock, a firefighter for 38 years and a former fire chief, with his fellow firefighters Stephen Field and Paul Casciotta, went through two months of driver training to become what the ambulance chiefs fondly call “fire drivers.”
“They’re so enthusiastic and so happy to be doing it,” Lisa Charde, the ambulance association chief, said recently.
The ambulance and fire services are separate agencies in East Hampton, and while there are a few people who join both as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, the three newest ambulance drivers are not actually members of the ambulance service. Instead, they are part of a newly reinstated program in which firefighters drive ambulances but do not receive credit for calls under the length-of-service awards program, a state-administered pension program for volunteers. Since they are not eligible for that program, “they are really doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” Ms. Charde said.
The new drivers made a lot of calls this summer, she said. “They’ve gotten us out of a couple of tight spots” when several calls came in at once. Mr. Bock in particular, she said. “He’s like, on every other call!”
Mr. Bock said he tries to make a call or two a day if he can. “They are busy. They needed help — that’s the bottom line,” he said. The ambulance association answers approximately 1,200 calls a year and has about 40 members.
While the volunteer ambulance association is supplemented by a paid staff — one paramedic is on duty 24 hours a day — Chief Charde and Chief Grabowski hope to hold onto the volunteer system as long as possible, and the “fire drivers” program is one way to do that.
The association membership has been welcoming, Mr. Bock said, even though an earlier attempt to get a similar program up and running did not work out. “The people who have been in the E.M.S. have all been wonderful with us,” he said. “My hat is off” to the members who take the 170-hour class to become E.M.T.s, then recertify every three years.
The program includes instruction or recertification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid, as well as doing supervised drives with the ambulance.
Mr. Casciotta, who has been a member of the Fire Department for seven years, said he decided to join the program because he has the time and he knows how many calls they run. He works as a part-time bus driver and has a gap in work during the school day. “I just feel like helping and I had extra time that I could afford to drive the ambulance,” he said.
Ambulance-driving has been a different experience for him, not only because of the difference in the size of the trucks and the haul to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, but because it is more up-close and personal. Seeing people in pain has been difficult, he said, but he is glad he can help get them to the hospital.
Before a firefighter can join the ambulance-driving program, the fire chief has to give them a recommendation. “I’m extremely happy with how it’s going,” Chief Gerard Turza Jr. said. “They’re really helping E.M.S. out, which correlates to better service for the public.”
“Being separate entities presents certain obstacles, but a program like this has bridged the cultural gap and has strengthened our relationship,” he said. “At the end of the day, the mission is to serve the public.”
Both the fire and ambulance chiefs hope that the program will be opened up again in the months ahead, and that more firefighters will enroll.