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Town Paramedics Sever Partnership

COLONIE, N.Y. -- Town paramedics are pulling out of a 15-year partnership with State Police to staff helicopter rescue missions throughout the Capital Region.

On Sept. 1, Colonie will end its relationship with the Lifeguard Air Rescue Program out of concerns about the cost, liability and the safety of its paramedics as well as a desire to refocus efforts inside the town, said Supervisor Paula Mahan.

"We feel this is the best decision for our residents here in Colonie," Mahan said. "We need to service them."

The paramedics were notified Monday, prompting their union to suggest the loss of the Colonie crews would be a loss to the entire region.

"They're angry. They don't see the logic in it," said Gary Favro, a labor relations specialist with the United Public Service Employees Union, which represents about 60 members of the EMS Department. "We're getting together to see how we're going to respond to it."

Since 1993, members of Colonie's Emergency Medical Services Department have flown with State Police air crews in a 75-mile radius from Albany International Airport to perform rescues and fly the most critical patients to hospitals. The program is one of five statewide.

While the crews were not assigned solely to helicopter missions, they were on call when needed. The air crews seldom responded to emergencies in Colonie because of the town's proximity to Albany Medical Center Hospital, but the airport's location at the center of the town made Colonie a natural partner.

The program has historically generated revenue for Colonie - about $150,000 annually after expenses - while giving the paramedics experience with patients they otherwise wouldn't get, according to the department's annual report.

Favro, a retired Troy fire captain and paramedic since 1980, said that's part of what doesn't make sense to the union: In a town strapped for cash, why ax a program that makes money?

But Mahan said the program is very expensive to run and that the economics of it are complex when you factor in the time those paramedics spend away from the town and the impact that may have on service.

"As far as whether the program is profitable," she said. "I think there's more work that has to go into to that to determine that."

In recent years, crews have responded to several local disasters, including the collapse of the dam on Hadlock Pond in Fort Ann and the sinking of the Ethan Allen tour boat on Lake George.

Last year, EMS Chief Jon Politis and two fellow paramedics received letters of commendation from then-Acting State Police Superintendent Preston L. Felton for helping rescue a critically injured boy at Greene County's Kaaterskill Falls.

The agreement with State Police involves no exchange of money. But the town EMS Department is allowed to bill for medical services provided aboard the helicopter.

Over the next seven weeks, State Police will seek a replacement for the Colonie paramedics "in order to minimize any disruption in the providing of Medevac services," said Sgt. Kern Swoboda, an agency spokesman.

"I don't know of anybody locally that can fill that gap," Favro said, citing the special training and equipment required, as well as the short timeline.

Politis, the chief, pledged to do what he can to enable a smooth transition. "Our paramedics that have been involved in the program have been very committed to it," he said. "I've watched our staff for the last 15 years with great pride. ... We're sad to see it go, but also, we have those experiences."

Last year, some 18 paramedics trained for the program responded with State Police to 108 medical emergencies, eight search-and-rescues, and were put on standby 212 times. Maj. Kenneth Rogers, director of the State Police Aviation Unit, praised the dedication of Politis and his unit and cited the many lives it has saved.

"It's much appreciated by the State Police what he's done for us and what the town of Colonie has done for us," Rogers said.

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@ timesunion.com.

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