County moves to full-time EMS staff

Brian Wood

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
Brian Wood, in 2014, spoke to the Westerlo Town Board about a dedicated emergency medical technician for the Hilltowns.

ALBANY COUNTY — The county’s emergency medical services are moving to full-time staff and the towns that pay for those services are feeling the pinch.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple hosted a meeting on Monday and heard concerns from those served by the county system.

“He’s willing to work in any direction they want to go,” said Brian Wood of Apple. Wood is the captain of the county’s EMS.

“He made it clear his job is to have ambulances to take sick people to the hospital. It’s up to them to push for change if they want it,” said Wood. “He realizes it’s expensive.”

Wood pointed out that, since only some of the municipalities in Albany County are served by county EMS, it would be unfair to tax everyone. The State Legislature, he said, would need to create a district within the county so that only those who are getting the service would be taxed. 

That process could take several years, he said, adding, “If that takes three years, it doesn’t help us in 2020.”

The towns served by county EMS include Rensselaerville, Westerlo, Berne, New Scotland with the village of Voorheesville, Coeymans with the village of Ravena, and Bethlehem, said Wood.

“Currently, the sheriff provides services and charges go back to the towns,” said Wood. “We pay for everything.”

As volunteer squads have had trouble recruiting, training, and keeping members, the county has moved in to supply services. Westerlo is the most recent town to have its squad retire. 

The Westerlo squad members announced through tears in August that the squad would end its service with the end of the year due largely to the lack of volunteers.

At the Westerlo Town Board’s Sept. 3 meeting, William Bichteman, the acting supervisor, said he was “flabbergasted” by the “EMS costs without our own ambulance”; he anticipated a hike of 20 to 25 percent in costs for the town.

Bichteman said of the Sept. 9 meeting with other town supervisors and the sheriff, “The strategy is to shift the burden for EMS from us to the county.” Bichteman claimed, “The sheriff is on board” but said that the county executive, Daniel McCoy, needed to be convinced.

“We need to make sure we end up reducing cost for all of the Hilltowns,” Bichteman said. One option, he said, would be to “threaten them we’ll form our own squad.”

If that fails: “Beg,” he said.

“The end result,” said Bichteman, “is to have the county take total responsibility but maintain the same in-house, in-town presence,” to keep call times short.

The Enterprise on Tuesday asked Mary Rozak, spokeswoman for the county executive’s office, about McCoy’s thoughts on having emergency medical services being paid for by the county rather than the municipalities. Rozak said that was the first she’d heard of it.

She went on, “We do anything and everything we can — the county executive is clear on that — to work with and help out every municipality in Albany County. We don’t have any further information. If someone were to reach out to us, we could look into seeing if anything could be done.”

Restructuring

Meanwhile, Wood said, “The sheriff is trying to restructure the EMS department. The job has become more competitive.”

The county EMS had typically been staffed by part-time workers. “We need more full-timers,” said Wood, adding, “The sheriff’s priority is a good quality EMS.”

The town of Guilderland, he noted as an example, has recently subsumed the duties once filled by the Western Turnpike Rescue Squad. “Guilderland just hired a bunch of people full-time,” Wood said. “The towns take away from services like us.”

Workers would naturally leave a part-time county slot that pays less per hour for a full-time job with a town that pays more per hour and also offers benefits like health insurance, he said.

Paramedics in Guilderland, Wood said, earn about $28 per hour while paramedics working for the county earn $22 per hour. Guilderland emergency medical technicians earn $20 an hour while county EMTs earn $14.50, he said, adding he’s seen signs at local convenience stores indicating they pay workers more.

Training for an EMT typically takes four to five months, Wood said, while paramedics complete a two-year college course.

“We have a ton of openings in our schedules,” said Wood. “Part-time people work when they want,” noting they have other commitments in their lives. “You can’t rule them with an iron fist because there are just so many jobs out there,” he said.

Wood stressed that the county EMS has “no problem covering calls.” The problem, rather, is the part-time workers filling so many shifts and working so much overtime.

Some work up to 4,000 hours a year, he said, noting that’s about twice as many hours as a full-time 40-hour-a-week worker puts in. “Granted, they get rich, but it’s not sustainable.”

Emergency medical work, Wood said, is not just physically difficult, but also mentally and emotionally a strain.

“We see deaths and dying and abuse, day in and day out,” he said.

By shifting to more full-time workers, he said, “We’re making it more career-oriented.” 

Full-time workers, with benefits, will work regular shifts and not overreach, he said,

Currently the county employs six full-time paramedics and nine full-time EMTs.

“We need 22 of each to fill our shifts completely,” said Wood.

But, to ease the burden on the towns paying for EMS, Wood said, “The sheriff is looking to go to 16 each.” This means hiring 10 more full-time paramedics and seven more full-time EMTs.

He anticipates this would be a 10-percent increase in expenses.

“We’ve been around 25 years,” said Wood. Since the state adopted a levy limit for municipalities, it has been difficult for the towns to keep up with the EMS costs, he said. “We’re hindered every year by the tax cap.”

Wood concluded, “Look at how much big towns pay fire departments and police versus EMS … EMS is looked at as an afterthought.”

More Regional News

  • Albany County distributed 1,000 of its 10,000 free COVID tests through Stewrt’s Shops to try to reach rural residents while Guilderland used an online sign-up to distribute its allotment of tests.

  • “We will no longer be doing contact tracing because the numbers of new daily positive cases is too high to keep up with in a time sensitive way,” Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen wrote in an email Wednesday morning, answering Enterprise questions. “We ask that those who test positive notify those who have been around them so they may take appropriate action,” Whalen said.

  • Despite the funding shortfall, New York State was legally compelled to fully reopen its application portal last week following a court injunction.

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