County proposal for Hilltown EMT a bust for 2015

Enterprise file photo — James E. Gardner

Westerlo Rescue Squad officers stand before their ambulance in 2013. From left are Kevin Slingerland, president; Ken Mackey, captain, Deborah Theiss-Mackey, assistant captain, secretary, treasurer, and director; Dan Kissling, vice president, and lieutenant.

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Brian Wood, emergency medical services coordinator for Albany County, listens to board members during the August town council meeting in Westerlo, where he and Sheriff Craig Apple came to speak about a proposal to hire a dedicated emergency medical technician for the Hilltowns.

HILLTOWNS — A plan by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office to relieve the local ambulance volunteers who are aging and fewer in number was scrapped this budget season as one of the three towns involved didn’t agree to bear part of the cost.

Brian Wood, emergency medical services coordinator for the county, and Sheriff Craig Apple spoke to the Westerlo Town Board in August, and said they had support from the two other town boards in Berne and Rensselaerville who needed to budget for the $94,700 plan. Westerlo’s share was around $40,000.

“They said it was too high,” Richard Rapp, Westerlo’s supervisor, said of the Westerlo Rescue Squad when asked this week why funds for the proposal weren’t included in the town’s 2015 budget that was adopted last month. “I don’t care for it either,” he added, defending the squad from criticism that it wasn’t covering its calls.

Kenneth Mackey, who, at age 60, serves as a town judge, works at Hannay Reels, and is the Westerlo squad’s captain, said he spoke to volunteer squad and town board members in neighboring Berne and Rensselaerville and found mixed feelings and less support than Wood described.

Mackey and his wife, Deborah Theiss-Mackey, are among the few who are considered indispensable to local ambulance squads, the breed of volunteer that Wood’s plan was particularly meant to relieve.

Mackey and Theiss-Mackey also say a current of resentment was created when the county’s advanced life support services started aggressively pursuing calls in recent years. Though the county program is considered a secondary response, its ambulance often leaves its base in New Scotland as the call is first made, Wood says, because it wants to waste no time in an emergency. Wood described the program as a buffer between the local volunteers and mutual aid, but Theiss-Mackey said the local squad leaders felt their suggestion to rely on the mutual aid system first was snubbed.

“If you want to start getting paid people in with volunteers, then you need to handle it with a little bit of tact and not make the volunteers feel like you’re trying to push them out,” said Theiss-Mackey this week.

The Mackeys, like many in their field, acknowledge that something will have to change, with formerly volunteer squads likely using paid services at some point. They say the problem this budget season was communication.

“I think the sheriff did it in the correct manner,” said Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier. “He had meetings with the elected officials. No one from Westerlo showed up. No one from the ambulance showed up.”

A meeting was called for 5 p.m. as most volunteers are just getting off of day jobs, Mackey said. Westerlo missed it and spoke to Wood later, he said.

Wood currently oversees the service that responds throughout the county and assists local squads, with some of its funding coming from municipal budgets each contributing a share. His proposal would have put a dedicated emergency medical technician on call as a first responder in the Hilltowns during the daytime, when it’s hard for volunteers to get a crew together and respond to a call.

As a nationwide problem, the numbers of volunteers are dwindling, leading some emergency-service agencies to use partly or fully paid staff, as is the case in nearby Guilderland and New Scotland.

“I’ve been a member for over 25 years and it breaks my heart to think that something may happen to the organization, but I also am 65 years old and I can’t keep doing EMS calls for the rest of my life,” said Brenda Wood, who, like the Mackeys, is a crucial member in the Rensselaerville ambulance.

In total, Westerlo’s squad has less than 20 volunteers, nine of them EMTs. In Rensselaerville, the number of volunteers is lower, with just four who have taken the 160 hours of initial training, which has to be recertified every three years.

Brenda Wood’s two sons, one of them Brian, are the squad’s two other EMTs. Working for the county, they don’t respond to calls as much as she does.

“To my opinion, the writing is on the wall,” said Anthony Guadagno, president of the Rensselaerville squad. “Eventually the county will have to take over the ambulance services and taxes will rise.”

But the cost of services that volunteers have provided for decades is hard for municipal budgets to take on at once. Having a basic life support ambulance around the clock in the Hilltowns alone would cost more than $380,000, according to Brian Wood’s calculations.

Wood said he’s sick of hearing people talk about the county taking over.

“If we wanted to put volunteers out of business, we would have done it in 2009,” when the county got its certificate of need, or the authority to operate in the county, he said.

Crosier said he and the Berne Town Board were in favor of the Hilltown EMT, but that it would be too expensive without a third town sharing the cost. He said Berne’s local ambulance, Helderberg Ambulance, which covers all of Berne and part of Knox, has “stepped up.”

“We’re doing this because some of the other municipalities are having trouble and we see the value in it, because, when the residents in Berne are paying for Helderberg Ambulance and the Westerlo ambulance can’t get off the floor because they don’t have enough people to staff the ambulance, that’s not Berne’s problem.”

The Mackeys feel the Westerlo squad is adequately covering its calls — the number of times it had to turn over a case to another squad decreased from 2009 to 2013, Theiss-Mackey said — but helping with calls over the border in Greene County has stretched their resources even further.

“The next step for them is really to either increase their volunteer staffing or to revisit with us. We can do it at anytime,” said Wood this week. He said he would broach the subject as he makes his budget for 2016.

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