When representatives of Greenburgh EMS and police sat around a virtual conference table with members of the villages’ volunteer ambulance corps and fire departments on Oct. 13, there was tension in the air.
They were all determined to make emergency medical services in Greenburgh and its six incorporated villages work better, but not everyone embraced the proposal that the Town of Greenburgh buy an additional ambulance, at taxpayer expense, to cover the villages’ needs for mutual aid. There was also criticism of the decision process that often results in the Greenburgh EMS being dispatched as the default mutual-aid ambulance rather than a volunteer ambulance corps (VAC) crew from a closer village location.
Elmsford Village Administrator Michael Mills said that previous efforts by the Town and villages to establish a mutual aid ambulance run by Greenburgh had failed. “It’s come to the point where some of us really need to explore this service,” he said, stressing that the aim of those negotiations was not “to replace anybody. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered.”
In recent months, the questions have become more critical because of a combination of factors: the coronavirus pandemic, a drop in volunteerism in general, and a lack of manpower, which is hobbling the Dobbs Ferry Volunteer Ambulance Corps in particular. In August, Dobbs Ferry VAC vice president Joe Rooney told the Enterprise that the corps, which subsists entirely on donations, was “bleeding to death right now and we need help.” The corps lacked enough volunteers to cover its shifts, and had been hiring per diem workers until the money ran out in July. Rooney said the donations it had raised via GoFundMe were “like putting a band-aid on a severed artery.”
“I want to set the record straight,” Greenburgh Chief of Police Chris McNerney said at the meeting. “The request to explore this [additional ambulance] was something that was brought to us by the villages. Neither Jared [Rosenberg, head of Greenburgh EMS) nor myself nor anyone on the town board brought this up — we’re here to support the town and the villages. Under no circumstances are we looking to solicit this.
“We do have an ambulance dedicated to mutual aid, but it’s not staffed,” he continued. “That is earmarked to go into the villages. We know this issue may have been exacerbated by Covid, getting the volunteers. This could be a short-term problem, but for some places it’s been going on for years.”
Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner suggested that a working group of town and village officials and emergency response organizations should be convened. McNerney agreed to Feiner’s suggestion that he head up the working group, stressing, “We don’t want to put the volunteer ambulance corps out of business.” Rosenberg, the former captain of the Dobbs Ferry VAC, agreed, “We want to work with all the volunteers to support the villages, however they need it, to save lives and reduce response times.”
Members of the Ardsley-Secor Volunteer Ambulance Corps (ASVAC) are skeptical about the need for another ambulance. ASVAC’s chairman, Morry Silbiger, wrote in a letter to Feiner on Oct. 12 stating that the problem with ambulance coverage these days was “not a resource crisis… the villages currently operate 10 ambulances among us, and purchasing another one with funds from the townwide budget is neither necessary nor advisable.”
In a phone interview on Oct. 12, ASVAC captain Greg Khitrov pointed out that most calls that would have been handled by Dobbs Ferry were being diverted to Irvington’s VAC, not to ASVAC. “Last month we had 12 mutual aid calls outside of Ardsley and all were cancelled,” he said. ASVAC is about to take delivery of a new $360,000 ambulance they bought with state grant money, so Khitrov knows how burdensome an expense the Town is considering.
“This is the kind of conversation the town board has to have with all of us,” Khitrov said. “To share the wealth and sustain the life of the current ambulance corps that the villages are super proud of.”
Other misconceptions surround the operations of the villages’ volunteer ambulance corps. One is that the corps’ operations are paid for with residents’ tax dollars. “Ardsley doesn’t receive a penny from the Village,” Khitrov said. “We do a fund drive every holiday season. Most of the revenue we get is from billing. Whatever insurance covers, that’s what we recover.”
Irvington is currently able to handle all the emergency calls that come in, including covering Dobbs Ferry calls. Ellen Lewit, captain of Irvington Volunteer Ambulance Corps (IVAC), said at the Oct. 13 meeting, “We have been completely self-sustaining… we rely on our revenue recovery [from insurance] and donations from the public, not any tax dollars or money from the government.” Lewit noted that IVAC provides its services free of charge. “We bill the insurance, but we don’t make the people pay,” she explained, adding that decades ago, “People used to be much more generous with their donations. Ninety percent of people in our villages think their taxes pay for us. We need help in getting the word out that our agencies rely on donations.”
Volunteer ambulance corps may have many volunteers on their rosters, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. With 14 shifts a week to cover, and 2 people needed on each call — at least one of whom must be an EMT and one who must be a trained ambulance driver — it can be hard to fill the shifts. Some volunteers at VACs take several shifts a month; others take only one or two.
That’s why IVAC has a combination of volunteers and paid per diem workers. “We had no choice, because as we all know, across America, voluntarism is down,” Lewit said. “And especially now, with Covid, nobody wants to catch a disease.” She said that if a volunteer has a full-time paid job, their employer could have a problem with a worker volunteering in a situation that could put them in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, and bringing that infection back to their workplace.
Despite that risk, Feiner said residents might not realize that becoming a volunteer first responder can have a financial benefit: a 10 percent discount on their property taxes. That’s an incentive that the supervisor believes should be publicized throughout the villages.