Sirens Go Silent - @

Sirens Go Silent

Ambulance service effectively ceased operations last week after 35 years


Christopher Baxter | | Wednesday, October 22, 2008

FORKS, Pa. -- Morris Metz "died" one afternoon in August 1986 and made it home for dinner the next day.

The 83-year-old vividly remembers the yellow jacket that stung him in the knee, the call to Forks Township Emergency Squad and the grave scenario doctors recounted when he awoke.

"They had told my son that I had been clinically dead," said Metz, who collapsed at his home after calling the ambulance. "The squad revived me. When an outfit like that saves your life, it's something that you never forget."

For 35 years, the local crew thrived on the spirit of volunteerism and a pledge to care for one's neighbor. But the once-blaring sirens and crackling radio fell silent Friday amid mounting debt, fewer calls and a final fallout with township officials.

Supervisors unanimously appointed Suburban Emergency Medical Services as the sole responder for the community Thursday. Prior to the decision, Suburban had handled advanced life support calls involving a paramedic, and Forks took care of basic life support needs.

"The township's name is on our trucks, for God's sake," said Michael Keifer, operations manager, sitting in his office Friday. "You would think after years of service, they would support us."

The supervisors' decision eliminated about 90 percent of the squad's work, effectively rendering Forks EMS inoperable, Keifer said. The other calls came from Stockertown, but Friday the borough opted in an emergency decision to use Nazareth Ambulance Corps for both basic and advanced life support needs, said Councilwoman Amy Richards. Nazareth will honor subscriptions paid to Forks EMS, Richards said.

Homegrown squads have fast disappeared from Pennsylvania neighborhoods in the past decade, a result of increasing expenses and fewer volunteers. The financial pressures have forced many local companies to merge, creating more viable regional squads such as Palmer Township-based Suburban.

"We used to say if you could do 1,200 to 1,300 calls a year, you should be OK," said Suburban Executive Director Barry Albertson. "Now we're saying you should do 3,000 calls a year to be OK. Expenses like insurance and payroll go up, and you can't exactly create more emergency calls to get more volume."

Residents, including Metz, a former supervisor, started Forks EMS in 1972, deciding the township needed its own emergency crew. They were electricians, plumbers and police officers, Metz said, but they were all volunteers.

Built with donations and free labor in 1974, the squad's building on Sullivan Trail became both a hub of frantic calls for help and a shelter for camaraderie.

"We used to have banquets each year to honor those who did significant things, and we'd all have a good time," Metz said. "It was really township-centered."

But throughout the 1980s and into the next decade, local EMS volunteers declined sharply, strapping small squads such as Forks EMS with payrolls. Paramedics would no longer work for free, and women who often volunteered to run ambulance calls during the day took full-time jobs instead.

Growing financial pressures finally boiled over in July 2006 when Forks EMS was forced to close after falling behind on bills and falling victim to a $20,000 theft by its former director of operations, Cory S. Dailey.

With an updated business plan, Michael Keifer and his father, William Keifer Jr., the squad's new president, persuaded township supervisors to let Forks EMS roll again, beginning April 1, 2007.

But less than a year later, the financial troubles had returned. Forks EMS stopped providing the township with monthly balance sheets and was not honoring an agreement to reimburse Suburban for certain calls.

Then came the lawsuits and tax liens, and the supervisors' decision to cut Forks EMS out of any advanced life support calls and allow Suburban to bill insurers and patients directly.

"We knew then it was over," Michael Keifer said. "We just couldn't make enough runs to keep up."

Communication broke down, the squad and the township exchanged blame, and when the Keifers did not attend Thursday's meeting, the supervisors had had enough. The Keifers did not attend because of Suburban's pending lawsuit, Michael Keifer said. But supervisors said they didn't believe that explanation.

Forks EMS remains saddled with nearly $500,000 in debt, and still must address an outstanding lawsuit filed by Suburban seeking back payments for service. Many of the squad's 25 employees -- full-time, part-time and by contract -- lost their jobs as of Monday, or probably will this week, Keifer said.

They include Tim Bachman, an emergency medical technician and father of two, who said Friday he plans to file for unemployment.

"This is home away from home," he said, sitting in the crew's lounge with his 2-year-old daughter. "We're a bunch of fun-loving people, and we are devoted to this place. We are devoted to the residents."

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