2010-01-29 / Columnists

East End Matters...

Rockaway Ambulance Volies Cut From 911 System
Commentary By Miriam Rosenberg

You’ve seen them, or maybe even have been helped by them. They are there in times of sickness and disaster. They are the volunteer ambulance services located throughout the Rockaway peninsula. Now Rockaway and the rest of the city may, literally, lose its life-lines to emergency medical help after the city’s Fire Department disconnected these volunteer services from the 911 system. As reported in last week’s Wave, last month a highranking EMS chief sent an e-mail to dispatchers in which he said these volunteer ambulances “are no longer required.” For Rockaway these volunteer ambulances could mean the difference between life and death. Especially on a peninsula that has 38 nursing homes on it.

Among those serving the area are, on the east end, the Rock Vac Ambulance Corps and Hatzolah of Far Rockaway; and on the west end there are three units in Breezy Point and the Broad Channel Vollies. These volunteer units are made up of trained, state certified emergency medical workers.

In addition to helping those in Rockaway, The Rock Vac was one of many volunteer units involved in response efforts during the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001 and the crash of Flight 587 in Belle Harbor two months later. Hatzolah, which responds to residents of Nassau County as well as Rockaway, has 68 licensed emergency medical technicians, 11 paramedics, 3 doctors and 5 ambulances.

When I spoke with two members of Rock Vac a little more than a year ago they explained the importance of having the volunteer ambulances in addition to the FDNY ones.

“The FDNY has only two ALS [advanced life support with paramedics ambulances] out here at a time,” said William Heath, who was chief of operations. “If one goes to Jamaica, then they have one. If both go to Jamaica, then what?”

The Rock Vac, located across from St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, covers from the Nassau County border to Beach 169 Street. At the time we spoke I was told they respond to more than 60 calls per month. Hatzolah has its station on Beach 9 Street, and their sirens can be heard frequently in that area. As someone who became a patient when her doctor called them to transport her to St. John’s one cold December night several years ago … well, they were caring and you would have never known they were volunteers.

Some of these volunteer units have response times that get them to the scene before the FDNY arrives. Just a week ago I witnessed a Rock Vac ambulance heading to an emergency scene followed several minutes later by the FDNY ambulance.

“The city needs us, because we’re often the first response to a medical emergency,” said Ed O’Hare, the president of the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department in last week’s Wave.

According to the FDNY website, the latest figures for average run times in Queens County for 2009 were 5 minutes and 33 seconds for cardiac arrest and choking, 7 minutes and 2 seconds for life threatening medical emergencies and 8 minutes and 8 seconds for non-life threatening emergencies. While these are not bad run times, volunteer ambulances, many times, are closer than FDNY ones and could shave one or two minutes off the response time. That could mean a lot.

Citywide 35 volunteer ambulance units, 50 ambulances, were cut from the 911 system putting, in Congressman Anthony Weiner’s words, “thousands of New Yorkers’ lives in jeopardy.” City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. is already calling for hearings into the new policy that reverses a January 2001 order that allowed volunteer ambulance services to take part in the 911 system. Here’s a question to be taken up at the hearing. If this is in some way a cost cutting move, how does it save money for the city? These are volunteers who are not on the city’s payroll. How much could it possibly cost to connect these units to 911?

Of course, even with losing the connection to 911, volunteer units can still listen for emergency radio calls or residents can contact these companies directly. But that is putting up an unneeded barrier when one 911 call can alert all the necessary parties.

Councilmen James Sanders Jr. and Eric Ulrich should back having hearings into the issue and let fire department officials know that their constituents don’t want to worry there may not be an ambulance around when one is needed, especially when there are so many volunteer companies in our own neighborhoods. The solution is simple – connect the volunteer ambulance services back to the 911 system.

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