Chenango County (NY) Adopts Paid Ambulance Service

The county is leasing a pair of ambulances from fire departments in Afton and South Otselic and plans to staff them with two advanced life-support providers each.

By Sarah Eames

The Daily Star, Oneonta, N.Y.

(MCT)

Faced with a declining volunteer base, limited funding, and long response times, Chenango County has adopted a countywide EMS service.

“We decided early on that we don’t want to replace any existing agencies. We want to enhance the services that are already there,” Chenango County Fire Coordinator Matt Beckwith said. “We still have ambulances throughout the county, we just lack the manpower.”

The county is leasing a pair of ambulances from fire departments in Afton and South Otselic and plans to staff them with two advanced life-support providers each, according to Beckwith.

“They have the vehicles, we’ll supply the manpower,” he said. “That way we’ll fill the outlying pockets.”

The county also plans to purchase a pair of fly cars — emergency service vehicles not equipped to transport patients — for the more remote north and south ends of the county, Beckwith said, staffed with two paramedics each.

The Chenango County Board of Supervisors earlier this month voted to impose a fee on motor vehicle use — $5 for vehicles weighing 3,500 pounds or less and $10 for heavier vehicles, due annually upon state inspection renewal — that will fund the EMS program, according to board chairman and Guilford Town Supervisor George Seneck.

The proposed fee received significant pushback at public hearings, Seneck said, noting that alternative sources of funding — levying an additional sales tax or raising the property tax levy — “were not exactly popular ideas, either.”

“We’re not a wealthy county,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of money floating around, and for the people who make less of an income, I think it’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

The majority of criticisms centered around households with multiple registered vehicles, for each of which the fee would be owed, Seneck said.

Funds available through the American Rescue Plan will finance the first two years of the service, Seneck said, after which the county will dip into reserves built by the motor vehicle fee revenues.

“This is not unique to Chenango County,” Seneck said. “EMS services are generally in crisis.”

The past three decades have seen several town ambulance services drop off the radar — McDonough, Pharsalia, Smyrna, Mount Upton — as volunteers age out and move away and new ones fail to join in sustainable numbers, according to Beckwith, who estimated that a third of the county’s ambulances are no longer in operation.

Superior Ambulance, a commercial service based in Binghamton, operated at least five ambulances throughout Chenango County until around 2007, when Cooperstown Medical Transport picked up some of the coverage, Beckwith said.

The Otsego County-based company downsized almost as quickly as it moved in, until it was bought out by the Colorado-based AMR, which eventually reallocated its resources elsewhere throughout the region.

Beckwith speculated that Chenango County’s high concentration of aging and low-income populations subsidizing their medical expenses with Medicare and Medicaid lessened the local appeal for profit-driven businesses like Superior and AMR.

“Eventually, they just stopped taking 911 calls,” he said. “For EMS, the money is in interfacility transports. Instead of the $400 flat rate from Medicaid, companies can charge for gas, for mileage — whatever they want.”

EMS providers along the state Route 12 corridor — Greene, Oxford, Norwich and Sherburne — have been stretched increasingly thin in recent years as they fill the gaps in coverage left in the absence of other agencies, Beckwith said.

Norwich Fire Chief Jan Papelino sounded the alarm at a series of Norwich Common Council meetings throughout the past year about the strain on the city’s EMS personnel and resources, citing in particular the growing mutual aid entanglements created when an out-of-town emergency renders an agency unavailable to respond to calls in its home territory.

Of the 169 calls Norwich EMS answered during the first half of 2021, 80 came from Oxford, according to Papelino.

The village of Oxford, seeking to alleviate the strain on its neighboring city, is recruiting part-time staff for paid EMS positions.

A recent survey found that Oxford EMS was only responding to about 35% of the calls within its fire district, which encompasses the towns of Preston and Smithville as well as the town and village of Oxford, according to Village Mayor Terry Stark.

“This is the only reasonable solution,” he said. “Our expectation is to pick up about 80% of the calls between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., which is when volunteers are historically at a minimum.”

The service — consisting of eight to 10 paid staff working 20 hours a week — comes at no additional tax cost to village residents, Stark said.

Personnel costs will be funded through the approximately $165,000 in reserves the village has accrued since 2017, when it began charging for EMS services, according to Stark. Vehicle maintenance, equipment and fuel costs will continue to be paid for through village tax collections.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in this working out,” Stark said. “We’ve put a band-aid on it, but right now, I’m already planning to figure out something better.”

The part-time paid service, as proposed, will require at least 485 calls a year to sustain itself, according to Stark. Current call volumes average between 400 and 430.

If the service fails to break even, Stark conservatively estimated the program sustaining itself on the 2017 reserves for 12 to 18 months.

Chobani, one of the largest employers in Chenango County, unveiled a $150,000 2021 Ford 350 four-wheel-drive ambulance it donated Tuesday to the village of Sherburne, which provides EMS service to the yogurt producer’s 750-employee New Berlin manufacturing plant.

Despite an ongoing partnership with the neighboring towns of Columbus and Smyrna to help offset ambulance staffing and maintenance costs, the village’s two ambulances have been inoperable “numerous times this past year,” according to Sherburne Mayor Bill Acee.

“This is literally a matter of life and death in some cases,” Acee said. “We could easily see a situation where neither ambulance is operational.”

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