Despite Policy Changes, Volunteer Culture Lives On In The East End’s Ambulance Companies

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For the better part of the past five months, Maggie Lamparter has devoted 14 hours a week to classes, another 14 hours to studying, and at least eight hours each week to the Hampton Bays Volunteer Ambulance Corps.At any given moment, she could get a call that whisks her away from her family and friends for up to three hours at a time, putting her face to face with the worst of the human condition—all on top of the 40 hours a week she works at her day job as a sales assistant.

Her compensation? Not one cent.

Ms. Lamparter’s story is not unique. This week is being celebrated as EMS Week, spotlighting the many volunteers who contribute time and energy as members of ambulance crews. The Hampton Bays mother of three has a narrative that is shared by hundreds of ambulance drivers, crew members, emergency medical technicians and paramedics throughout the East End who volunteer for their local ambulance corps.

However, that storyline—with all the late nights, all the long hours spent studying, attending classes and responding to calls, and all the time spent apart from loved ones—is the biggest challenge those corps are faced with on a day-to-day basis. It is also what prevents some others from joining their ranks, and what causes still others to burn out after just a few years.

Adding Paid Members

Because of these drawbacks, many ambulance districts have had to make adjustments in recent years, gradually bringing on more paid emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, and paramedics, some even running full-time crews.

But even as these departments change, their core remains its volunteers.

“To work at something and get paid to do it is one thing, but to put in the time to volunteer is rewarding on a whole other level,” said Ms. Lamparter, who has been a helper with the Hampton Bays Volunteer Ambulance Corps for the past year. “For an elderly person who doesn’t have anyone there with them, to be able to hold their hand and make them feel like someone is there for them, that’s what it’s all about.”

There are 12 ambulance companies between Southampton and East Hampton towns, some of which are part of their community’s respective fire districts, while others have their own incorporated districts. All of these companies are volunteer-based, though, and over the past several years there has been a growing trend among these agencies of hiring full-time and per diem paramedics to either fill in gaps during the day, when volunteers are not as easily available due to other obligations, or, in some cases, to provide 24/7 coverage.

Ralph Oswald, the head paramedic in the Hampton Bays Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said Long Island is one of the few places in the country where “pure volunteer” ambulance corps can still be found as many other areas have either replaced them with paid municipal departments or contracted with private companies. Being among the final holdouts, some local volunteer corps have been reluctant to change, he noted.

Mr. Oswald was hired in 2006 to establish the full-time program in Hampton Bays, which now includes three full-time and eight per diem paramedics, along with more than 60 volunteers. When he first arrived in Hampton Bays, many volunteers did not respond well to the type of change he was bringing, he recalled this week, as they worried that paid professionals would ultimately force the volunteers out.

“To be honest, it was not very well-received at first. It was a ‘Not in my backyard’ type thing,” he said. “People wanted to keep things as they were. But, eventually, people were able to realize that we are able to respond together as a team.”

Now, Mr. Oswald thinks most of the volunteers in Hampton Bays appreciate that paid paramedics aren’t driving out volunteers but rather helping them provide a more efficient service, he said.

Filling A Need

Even in districts with round-the-clock professionals on-hand, volunteers are still needed as drivers and crew members to aid EMTs and paramedics both on the scene and during rides, Mr. Ralph said. All EMTs, including volunteers, must take classes, usually at the ambulance company’s expense, before being certified for basic life support, or BLS, which generally takes about six months.

Most ambulance corps on the East End, even those without full-time paramedics, provide advanced life support, or ALS, which a basic EMT is not certified to handle. EMT-Critical Care, or EMT-CCs, are certified to perform duties such as intubation, administering intravenous fluids, monitoring heart rates and administering drugs. To become an EMT-CC, a certification unique to New York, volunteers must devote an additional year to classes and testing after achieving EMT status, and both positions require constant continuing medical education, or CME, courses, further taxing volunteers’ time.

“The biggest challenge is finding time for training. The county requires constant training, so it’s tough to keep up,” Ann Grabowski, a 25-year volunteer and former chief of the East Hampton Volunteer Ambulance Association, said recently. “With the summer call volume, it’s tough to manage the volunteering side, too.”

Ms. Grabowski, a mother of four, said she’s had shifts where she’s had to go out on seven calls in a night. “We like putting our time in,” she said. “I do it because I like the reward out of it. If I can help the community in some way, it’s all worth it.”

While western ambulance corps like Hampton Bays, Westhampton War Memorial and Flanders-Northampton have had paid personnel for years, those farther to the east have been slower to make the shift. East Hampton—the only East Hampton Town ambulance corps not associated with a fire department—is the most recent ambulance corps to add paid employees, hiring on a dozen part-time paramedics using $100,000 allotted by the East Hampton Village Board earlier this month. One paramedic will be on duty each day, from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., Ms. Grabowski said. The first paid shift took place Monday.

“We’re ready for it, and I think we’re going to be happy about,” Ms. Grabowski said. “I think some people were afraid that the volunteerism would disappear, but we only have one paramedic on at a time. We still need the driver and the EMTs and all the crew members to make runs.”

The decision by East Hampton comes in the wake of the Amagansett Fire Department launching a paid EMT program in March and the Montauk Fire Department entering its second year of paid service, starting a paid program at the beginning of last summer.

Amagansett Fire Department Chief Dwayne Denton, a 25-year volunteer, said one of the reasons it is difficult get people to volunteer is because so many East End residents have been forced to work two jobs just to make ends meet.

“It is a strain on the family, it is a commitment by the person but if the person is married and has a family, the family is making a commitment too,” he said. “Life is so fast paced that you have to make that dollar and if you don’t make the dollar, you can’t live out here.”

Sag Harbor Village also recently decided to add a full-time staff member, designating $63,500 to cover the cost of that individual’s salary and benefits. Sag Harbor Ambulance Chief Edmund Downes said the duties of the new employee have not been laid out yet, though that individual is expected to be an ambulance administrator to help out during the day.

Unlike other areas on the East End, Sag Harbor’s population stays fairly consistent year-round, Mr. Downes said, meaning there are no spikes—or breaks—in calls, which totaled 875 last year.

A 27-year volunteer, Mr. Downes said the decision to bring on a paid staff member was made after getting the consent of the estimated 30 volunteers in the outfit. “We would not have moved forward if they were not consenting to it,” he said.

Hesitant To Change

Other departments still have yet to cross the border into paid territory, including the Springs Fire Department, which boasts approximately 30 ambulance volunteers, Chief Ben Miller said Monday. But in Springs’ case, switching to a paid program is not necessarily an option at this time.

Mr. Miller explained that the tax base for the Springs Fire Department would not be able to support a paid paramedic program. Of the roughly 30 volunteers, 11 are certified EMTs and three of those are EMT-CCs. Although the CCs are trained to do a lot, Mr. Miller said, they still fall short of the capabilities of a certified paramedic.

“A paramedic is basically an emergency room doctor on a rig,” he said. “They’ve been basically through a crash course in the field emergency room tech stuff.”

If an ambulance corps responds to a call that requires a service it cannot provide, namely services provided by a paramedic, the crew must call for mutual aid. That means that even the districts that don’t have a paid paramedic on staff could still benefit from a paramedic being hired at a neighboring district, Hampton Bays paramedic Jim Ledogar said Friday night.

However, the situation could become sticky when a paramedic is responding to a mutual aid call in a neighboring district and another call comes in from his or her home district. Mr. Miller said the details of what would happen in this situation have not been worked out between Amagansett and East Hampton, his neighboring districts.

“If East Hampton is going to lend their medic to us then, all of a sudden, they get a call, what happens then?” Mr. Miller asked. “We don’t know yet.”

Still Filling A Need

Mr. Ledogar, a former general contractor, said he joined the Hampton Bays Ambulance Corps as a volunteer in 2002, seeking a means to serve his community in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Looking back, he said he found more than he anticipated in volunteer service—he found his passion and, eventually, a new career.

Mr. Ledogar went on to get certified as an EMT and EMT-CC. He is now a full-fledged paid paramedic.

He explained that, from his perspective, the path to becoming a paramedic is no more difficult than the actual position itself. He noted that his body goes through “an endocrine roller-coaster” every time a calls comes in, explaining that his “adrenaline [is] constantly going off.”

He also agreed that, particularly for per diem paramedics who have to work for multiple agencies to make ends meet, such a career can be taxing. He noted that when he first set out on his new career he would work 32 hours a week for a hospital in New York City, 16 hours in Hampton Bays, 12 hours for Southampton Village and 13 hours in East Quogue.

Such a schedule, he continued, takes its toll both mentally and emotionally.

“Anytime I feel good about something I know that I’ll have to pay that back by going through some not-so-good things,” Mr. Ledogar said. “So, I separate from bad things by separating from the good things as well.

“Some people on the outside might look at that as being cold,” he continued, “but that’s the way I have to deal with it.”

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