After 4 years without an ambulance, Stamford residents push for more reliable service
BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — The Town of Stamford, in Delaware County, hasn’t had its own ambulance service since 2018. What it does have is a "fly car." Also known as a non-transporting EMS vehicle, the fly car is a red SUV parked in the firehouse, full of medical supplies and equipment.
“This is pretty much an ambulance condensed into a mobile first response unit. We can do everything with the exception of transport,” Stamford EMS Chief Ryan Henjal said.
The fly car has ice packs, bandages, supplies used to control bleeding and a defibrillator. There’s equipment for putting in an IV, and for intubating a patient.
The town’s first responders can get to the scene and stabilize a person. But they have to wait with them for an ambulance to show up. In Stamford, the average wait time is 45 minutes.
The standard for rural ambulance response times is around 20 minutes, Henjal said. But he said occasionally it’s taken as long as three hours for an ambulance to arrive. And once, there wasn’t anyone to answer the call.
“We had one call, [the dispatcher called] 23 agencies, and no ambulance was available. To the point where the dispatcher called the house back and said, ‘We’ve got nothing. You have to find your own way to the hospital,’" Henjal said.
Volunteerism on the decline
Stamford’s fire district discontinued their own ambulance service in 2018. They simply didn’t have enough volunteer first responders to staff it.
Instead, the town relies on commercial ambulance services, or volunteer services from other towns. But those agencies are short-staffed themselves, and they often must come from far away.
Forty percent of agencies using volunteer EMS squads said their volunteer workforce had dwindled by over 10 percent in three years. Over half of them said staffing shortages have affected their ability to respond to calls. That’s according to a 2019 study from New York’s Emergency Medical Services Council.
Because of staffing shortages, remaining volunteer EMTs are burnt out, traveling further and working longer hours. That makes it harder to retain them.
And across the state, rural EMS volunteers are aging out. More often than not, they aren’t being replaced. Many people don’t have the time to go through the necessary training hours, in addition to working paid jobs to support themselves or their families. The job is difficult, and volunteers must drop everything to go out on a call.
“You also have employers that don’t have the capability of letting volunteers leave to handle calls. Also, people are traveling further to find employment, so they’re not able to run home and do a volunteer call,” Henjal said.
A group of residents work to spread information
In a room above the firehouse, around 12 Stamford residents and volunteer first responders gather every Thursday night. The group is called the Northern Catskills EMS Council.
Many of them remember when Stamford’s emergency response was made up of volunteers from the community. Most of them have experience in volunteer firefighting or EMS themselves.
Bill Sharick, who’s been with Stamford’s fire department since 1985, said they’re waging a kind of information campaign.
“Based on our personal experiences as we went out in the community, there was a lot of misinformation, or lack of information,” Sharick said. “And we decided that it was very important to get information to the public, so that they would understand what’s happening.”
The Northern Catskills EMS Council hands out leaflets, trying to explain what actually happens when you call 911. They put up a billboard with the number of calls the town’s firefighters and EMTs have responded to, almost 150 in total so far this year.
On average, Stamford’s fire district gets over 400 emergency calls a year. But the town's firefighters say that number is going up—last year, they received 562 calls.
“We thought, let’s use the billboard to get across to people how busy our volunteers are, with EMS calls in particular,” said Lori Cioffi, a resident and member of the Northern Catskills EMS Council.
"We've put the money out there"
EMS isn’t considered an “essential” service in New York. That means unlike fire and police departments, EMS squads and the towns that run them don’t get consistent funding from the state. As volunteerism declines, rural towns and counties have had to get creative with funding.
Delaware County recently decided to put $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money towards funding a county-wide ambulance service. Otsego County created their own ambulance service to support volunteer EMS squads, using ARPA funds, last year.
And now, with the help of a $900,000 grant, Stamford and neighboring towns Harpersfield and Kortright are creating their own nonprofit, paid ambulance service. They will be able to pay EMTs, rather than relying solely on volunteers. A board made up of members from each town will set the service up.
Don VanEtten is the director of the Robinson Broadhurst foundation, which gave the grant. He’s worked on coordinating the project for over a year.
“I pulled out real [911 call records], and I showed those to the town supervisors, and showed them that there are times where it could take an hour, it could take three hours,” VanEtten said. “Sometimes you might not get an ambulance at all. And I said, and that's completely unacceptable.”
VanEtten said the biggest challenge has been cost, and planning how to sustain the service after the grant money runs out. He said it will likely involve raising taxes.
“We’ve put the money out there, we have the towns’ verbal commitment on this. The towns are currently working on establishing EMS tax districts, similar to a lighting or a water district,” VanEtten said.
The ambulance service now has a name: Headwater Emergency Medical Services. They hope to have it up and running by the beginning of 2023.