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N.J. Emergency Services Unprepared for a Major Crisis

NEWARK, N.J. -- We ve spent a lot of time and money on emergency preparedness since 9/11, and while it s impossible to be perfectly response-ready in every circumstance, we re a lot savvier than we were six years ago.

Indeed, in The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack, due in bookstores this month, author Ronald Kessler cites incident after incident of tragedies averted, attributing them to vastly more attentive and sophisticated American intelligence efforts.

Yet while the sights of those in charge of national security have been trained on preventing or coping with an attack of 9/11 dimensions, our level of preparedness for much more likely crises has diminished.

According to a report released last week by TriData, a Virginia consulting enterprise, New Jersey s emergency management system is in a state of near crisis.

The reasons, says the report, commissioned by the state Department of Health and Senior Services, include the system s financial structure, decline in volunteer membership, lack of comprehensive legislation, and a weakened advanced life support system.

It takes a report to tell us this, of course, because we don t even think about our local emergency services, beyond perhaps making a contribution once a year. As with fire and police services, we re confident that emergency workers will come if summoned. But unless or until that happens, they re pretty much off our screen.

Further complicating matters, the crisis doesn t affect every town equally. In cities, where emergency workers hold full-time paid positions, the concern is minimal. In suburbs and rural areas, however, where such services often are staffed exclusively with volunteers, it s a big concern.

In towns where large numbers of residents work locally, round-the-clock volunteers may be available. In areas where most residents commute out of town, private emergency services are sometimes hired to cover daytime hours, with volunteers taking over from sunset to dawn.

Few understand the difficulties of managing volunteer squads better than William Dudley, who has been a member of the New Vernon First Aid Squad since he founded it in 1974 and who has experienced the increasing difficulty of attracting volunteers.

When we started, (our community had) a lot of women who were housewives and could free up time during the day to answer a call, he says. Now everybody s working - both spouses, some at more than one job - so we get fewer and fewer people who want to get involved. Even at nighttime. They just don t have the time.

We just sent out a letter to people in the community saying we need volunteers. Sunday before last, our captain made an appeal at church.

Dudley, who has a scheduled shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every Thursday, acknowledges the commitment involved. Generally, you also take a 12-hour night shift about one weekend a month, but there can be additional calls when you need an additional ambulance, he explains. On weekends, there s no assigned crew, so you scramble.

Make that everybody scrambles because all his town s volunteers understand that a weekend call is a summons for all available members to head for the ambulance garage. We leave with the first three or four people who show up, Dudley says, then notify everyone by pager that we have a full crew.

Add to the on-call schedule the demands of training, meetings and periodic refresher courses, and you begin to understand why it s hard to attract volunteers.

It s encouraging to know we re making strides in our ability to thwart terror attacks. But the reality is that our next major crisis is just as likely to come from a fast-spreading virus, a Three Mile Island-type environmental accident, storms, floods or other natural disasters -- and apparently we re not as well prepared for any of those things as we could be.

That s where the emergency system becomes crucial -- because emergency medical technicians almost always constitute the first level of response in a crisis. Sure you want top-flight doctors and nurses and specialists once you arrive at the hospital. But without enough qualified people driving the right equipment, you won t even get there.

This could turn out to be one of those odd situations where we re paying so much attention to the forest we could be losing sight of the trees.

Fran Wood may be reached at fwood@starledger.com. To join the conversation on her column, go to NJVoices.com.

Notes: Fran Wood appears regularly in The Star-Ledger.

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