While a publicly aired qualm over local ambulance response times incensed some, representatives for East Hampton agencies said this week the complaint does not represent the norm.
It's easy, according to East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, to get "sidetracked by an extreme incident and we forget about all the saves and water rescues, like the miraculous save of Doris Quigley," as well as the hours spent preparing residents for hurricanes and the relief given to other communities, like Breezy Point, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
It's these challenges that brought together 8 to 10 representatives from the area fire departments and ambulance services for a subcommittee of the East End Ambulance Coalition, which met Tuesday evening at the Amagansett firehouse.
Since 1989, representatives of the six ambulance companies that serve residents in the Town of East Hampton have convened, almost monthly, to discuss issues that they face in emergency medical service. From training to dispatching, the coalition tackles important questions to strengthen the system, fueled purely by volunteers.
Over the summer, the coalition decided to form a subcommittee to hone in on certain challenges, such as recruitment, retention and community outreach, according to Philip Cammann, a Bridgehampton Fire Department paramedic who was appointed, along with Eddie Downes, the president of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps, to head the subcommittee.
While a complaint regarding a 20-minute wait one patient had for an ambulance after a fall last week came up at that meeting, it was by no means the focus or the reason for calling it, Cammann said on Wednesday. The group was previously scheduled for some time, he said.
While the call raised at the board meeting received attention, Cammann pointed out that the call was one of 6,000 that EMS personnel respond to annually between Bridgehampton and Montauk.
"Realistically, we’re looking — as we always do — where we are now, where we are going to be, as we look towards another summer season, and where we are going in the future," he said. "As far as we're concerned we kind of act like the think tank for the agencies," he said of the coalition overall.
Asked whether recommending the institution of paid EMS personnel for any or all of the ambulance companies, Cammann said: "Everything is in discussion. Everything is a topic of conversation."
"We're fact finding and brain storming at this point," said Village Deputy Mayor Barbara Borsack, an emergency medical technician and volunteer with the East Hampton Village Volunteer Association for more than 20 years.
"It's never a bad thing to talk about how to improve," she said, adding it was time for a serious discussion. A member of the group, she has "unique position" of being an elected official and a volunteer, she said, "I have a certain responsibility to the public. If we're going to provide a service, we have to do it the right way."
She said she went to the coalition in the fall, after what she called a particularly difficult summer, between the sheer call volume and the fact that it was one of the most deadly summers on the roads in recent memory. "Mentally, it takes a toll. After the fatality on Route 114, I didn't answer a call for two weeks," she said.
"The summer is always worse. We do half of our yearly calls in June, June and August," she said of the EHVVA's 1,363 calls for 2012 — it is the busiest agency of the six. "When you get to the 200 mark in one month, that's a lot of calls in 30 days." The volume of calls "gets out of control in the summer."
When she joined about 23 years ago, EHVVA answered about 600 calls per year. The amount of volunteers hasn't increased much, she said. "We don't have more people joining, and that's part of the problem."
Borsack said she has a deep appreciation for volunteers, who not only give their time to go on calls, but to train. "Everybody appreciates what they do — and I'm one of them. I'm certainly not out to do what the volunteers wouldn't like. We're always going to need the volunteers."
The group will look at what seasonal communities do to handle the summer influx, as well as how other nearby communities have implemented partially paid systems, Borsack said. They also talked about finding ways to better educate the public on what constitutes an emergency, she added. "We have a lot of visitors here who don't understand the system. They may come from where there is a paid system, and think nothing of calling for a stubbed toe or whatever," she said.
Borsack said she was encouraged by Tuesday's meeting.
Wilkinson, who represented the town at the meeting, said it was a good start. "It's smart of them to sit back as the experts," he said. "Everybody realizes that not only is the population changing, but the times that the population is here are changing."
The process of self-improvement is ongoing, Cammann said. The coalition's goal of identifying areas that need improvement within the system is constant, he said.
"The mutual aid agreement is a fantastic example of it," he said, referring to the agreement in place between all the fire districts that allows volunteers from other districts to respond to a call when a district cannot muster up a crew or needs more manpower.
It was instituted six to eight years ago, after he coalition vetted the idea and then took it back to each of the districts to get support from officials and members. "We reconvened and tuned it up and then implemented it," he said.
Cammann added that the coalition welcomes input from the public. "We’re always interested in public perception and welcome commentary and input from anyone who wants to contact us," he said. He recommended contacting the captain of your local EMS agency or chief of your fire department with your concerns, which will then be brought to the coalition.