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EMS board in 'decline'

By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY — February 15, 2008 — It’s hard to fathom apathy among the ranks of some of the county’s most dedicated volunteers.
But according to at least one member, the Sullivan County EMS Advisory Board is falling apart – and members cannot put their finger on one particular source.
The latest blow dealt the board created by the Sullivan County Legislature around the turn of the millennium, was the request by the Jeff First Aid Squad to the Town of Callicoon to pull its volunteer representative.
It was a role filled for the past six years by the squad’s president, John Crotty, of Callicoon Center.
Crotty distinctly remembers the ambulance corps of the county circling the wagons at the government center in Monticello, asking for representation akin to that given the Sullivan County fire service.
The Legislature responded by creating the EMS Advisory Board as well as the position of EMS coordinator.
At first, representatives to the board came from each township. Later that was amended so appointees would represent individual corps.
“Over the years, some corps would be steadfastly active,” Crotty said. “Some corps have been indifferent. Some corps have never participated.”
These days, those not participating is increasing.
Crotty’s spent more than a few nights at the government center waiting for just one more member to arrive so a quorum would be on hand – necessary to hold an official meeting of any board.
More than once, that person never showed.
Then there’s the county’s treatment of the board.
Crotty said he and his colleagues are envious of the fire service – at the very least, their coordinator gets mileage for the work he does.
The EMS Advisory Board asked for a small budget from the county last year – enough to pay the coordinator mileage, reimburse the board secretary for paper and ink and cover postage for its mailings.
Crotty said he was appreciative that then Legislature Chair Chris Cunningham, County Manager David Fanslau, County Attorney Sam Yasgur and Public Safety Committee Chair Leni Binder attended the meeting, but the board has yet to see anything they promised.
That includes a clarification of the board’s duties and oversight of the EMS coordinator’s position.
The last time the county was looking to fill the coordinator’s slot, Crotty said the board was never even notified. The same goes for the appointment of deputy coordinators – the board found out after the fact.
In the time since, the coordinator has not attended every meeting of the board, Crotty said, and some of the deputies have never attended a meeting.
Then there was the long legal notice printed in the Jan. 4 issue of the Democrat outlining the county government structure.
The section on public safety includes eight separate subsections, including the Fire Advisory Board and Fire Coordinator.
Nowhere does it mention the EMS Board or its coordinator.
“We’ve been told this was just an oversight,” Crotty said. “We took it personal.”
Then the county dealt what Crotty calls the final blow to the EMS board.
Several years ago, the board’s meetings were moved from the government center to the fire training center in White Lake.
Crotty’s not sure how it happened – he only recalls a letter warning anyone who wants to meet in the government center after 7 p.m. would have to pay overtime for the staff to keep it open.
When the board attempted to meet at the fire center in January, they were told the meeting space had already been filled by a training session for firefighters.
Crotty, a volunteer fireman for some 25 years, said he doesn’t negate the need for fire training services. But with the county’s EMS workers averaging 10 times more calls a year than the firefighters, shouldn’t there be a similar program in place for ambulance corps, he asked.
The charter of the EMS Advisory Board calls for county involvement in training, Crotty continued.
But while BOCES fought for two years to bring EMS training to Sullivan County – with the help of Jeff First Aid members Ruth Ackermann and Marty Handler (who is also the superintendent of BOCES) – the county did nothing.
Lack of training is what’s driving volunteer corps out, Crotty said.
“For years, we were a glorified taxi,” he explained. “You showed up, you hauled and you went home.
“For perfectly good reasons, the public deserves a higher level of care,” he continued.
But the increased level of training to meet state requirements has created a “terrible burden” on the volunteers, Crotty said.
“There’s a perception of always looking behind you,” he explained. “You’re in mortal fear of a lawsuit; you worry about the call audits at the hospital.
“What makes it worthwhile is it’s so darn important,” he continued. “These are legitimate calls of people in need, and these people are putting in the time because their neighbors need their help.”
But corps that in their heyday answered a call a day are gone, Crotty said, because of the pressures of training and the lack of volunteers.
“If you’ve got people who are willing to volunteer… it’s a crying shame when these corps go down the tubes because people are overwhelmed or scared,” he noted.
What the EMS community needs is support, Crotty said.
The lack of participation by some corps shouldn’t negate what those who do participate are doing.
“If an elected official is elected by a small number of the voters, does that make him any less important? Does that make his duties any less important?” he asked.
The corps not represented may not have the resources to participate, he said, but they’re depending on the board to keep going.
“I understand how the county might view our history,” Crotty said. “I don’t think any of us are mad at anyone. We’re not pointing fingers.”
Building off the fire advisory board model, Crotty said if the county is willing to make some changes, he could see corps (Jeff included) returning to the table.
“Given the current internal conflicts between the individual municipalities’ emergency services boards, and the undercurrent of discord in the advisory board, I feel it is important to not make any hasty decisions until all of the information about all of the issues has been examined,” said Binder in a statement issued jointly with Fanslau.
“In the weeks ahead, it is our intention to examine the original mission and structure of the organizations, and consider what the mission has become, and what structure best suits the needs of a majority of these organizations,” she continued. “It’s a very complicated issue, with some municipalities paying for their emergency services while others are volunteers and others are part of their local fire departments, and it would behoove us all to carefully examine all the details before rendering any decisions.”

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