By Conor Greene
The FDNY is insisting that recent changes to the city’s 911 system concerning local volunteer ambulance companies is simply “clerical” and won’t have any impact on the ability to respond to emergency calls. Even so, local elected officials are looking into the matter to ensure that public safety isn’t compromised by the change.
The confusion over the situation began when the New York Post published an article claiming that the city’s 35 community-based volunteer ambulance organizations, or vollies, were kicked off the 911 system. However, according to the FDNY, the vollies were previously given access to the system “as a courtesy” but were never dispatched to respond to emergency calls.
“There are volunteer ambulances out there that previously had access to our system, but that was done as a courtesy,” said FDNY spokesman Steve Ritea. “They are not dispatched through our 911 system and never were. There is going to be no difference when the average person calls 911 for an emergency. The same pool of ambulances that would have been available to respond before this change can still respond. The change for the public is non-existent.”
In “very rare instances” such as during last year’s swine flu outbreak, the FDNY and vollies establish a mutual aid partnership, during which some ambulances not generally included in the 911 system are assigned to help respond to certain calls. “Before those ambulances are even put on that status, we will send them to one of our EMS stations to make sure they have the proper equipment and training,” said Ritea. He said that the total amount of hours during which mutual aid is utilized is only about 30 to 40 a year.
Still, local elected officials said this situation needs to be closely examined to make sure it doesn’t impact response time. “This is an issue that a lot of people don’t know a lot about, but it is actually happening,” said Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria). “Something of this magnitude should not be done without the input of the public and City Council.”
Vallone said the Council’s fire and criminal justice will look into the matter in the coming weeks. “To my knowledge, they were definitely able to log into the system… and now they’re not being given or sharing information with the FDNY in a way they did previously,” he noted. “The ramifications need to be seriously looked at.”
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who was recently named chair of the fire and criminal justice committee, was working Wednesday to find out more about this change, according to a spokeswoman, and agreed more information was needed about this issue.
“Given that 10,000 to 15,000 people are served by the volunteer ambulance services annually, the FDNY needs to provide us with clear answers as to why they came to this decision, and what the implications are,” said Crowley in a statement. “Over the coming days I will continue to reach out to the FDNY to get answers and to ensure that we are doing everything possible to keep New Yorkers safe.”
According to Ryan Gunning, chairman of the New York State Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Association, District 4, local vollies have been “dealing with varied response in their contacts with the FDNY” since October. He explained that FDNY EMS issued a command order in 2001 formalizing procedures for communication with vollies in “an effort to maximize system utilization of available resources.”
That order was revoked over the past year, without any notice to local groups, according to Gunning, who is also a president of the Glendale Volunteer Ambulance Corp. “So now that the FDNY EMS has rescinded this order, is it an effort to minimize system utilization of available resources?” he questioned. “Is this the right time? With the current economic crisis at hand, should we really be cutting off contact with the volunteers EMS sector?”
Gunning added that many local groups such as his don’t want to be added to the city’s 911 system, which could mean being dispatched to emergencies outside their area. “The volunteers only wish to have better communications between FDNY and the [vollies],” said Gunning. “We wish to be utilized better in local response within our communities and wish only to supplement, not supplant, existing resources.