Thursday, February 25, 2010

City Restores Volunteer Ambulances to 911 System

By Conor Greene

City fire officials have agreed to once again allow community-based volunteer ambulance corps to log onto the 911 system, in a reversal of a much-criticized decision made late last year.

Last month, it was reported that FDNY and EMS had decided to no longer allow local ambulance corps to log onto the 911 system, a move that was seen by many elected officials and volunteers as a step towards phasing them out of the emergency response system. In response, FDNY/EMS officials said the change was “clerical” and noted that volunteers were never dispatched to emergencies through the 911 system.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who chairs City Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Committee, was joined by members of volunteer ambulance corps at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Following the rally, Crowley led a hearing on the recent FDNY/EMS decision to remove the vollies from the 911 system.

During that hearing, EMS Chief John Peruggia agreed to restore the policy that allowed the groups to log onto the 911 system, according to Crowley, who called the decision a “victory for all New Yorkers.” However, she cautioned that “while this is a step in the direction, there is still progress to be made to reach a solution that will most effectively utilize these volunteer groups in partnership with the EMS... I hope today’s hearing demonstrates a willingness and a commitment from the EMS to work with our community volunteer ambulances and the City Council to utilize these free and important resources.”

There are about three dozen volunteer ambulance groups throughout the city, mostly in the outer boroughs, that respond to nearly 15,000 emergencies annually. The policy reversed last October was a 2001 EMS Command Order that allowed vollies to log onto the system in an effort to maximize all available resources.

While the FDNY stressed that the change would have no impact for patients, officials from local groups said the decision limited their roles and made it harder for them to send and receive critical information from EMS. Historically, vollies would log onto the 911 system to obtain updates on local emergencies, and to let the 911 system know the groups were available to respond.

“Especially in these times of economic uncertainty, volunteer resources stand ready, wiling and able to help and assist the city of New York, yet they’re not being utilized,” Ryan Gunning, head of the Glendale Volunteer Ambulance Corp and the state Volunteer Ambulance Regional Association, said at the rally.

After the EMS announced the vollies would be restored to the 911 system, Gunningposted a message online commending Crowley for pushing the matter during the hearing. “On behalf of the volunteers in NYC, we commend your efforts and look forward to continuing to work with you and your committee on this issue,” Gunning posted on Crowley’s Facebook page.

According to Crowley, the vollies are more important than ever since the economy has forced the city to make “crippling cuts” to its emergency services. In the past few years, three Queens hospitals have closed, and ambulance tours have been cut, according to the councilwoman. “This is why we must [reach] a solution that utilizes our volunteer ambulances services so they can continue saving New Yorker’s lives,” she said. “In light of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s push for nationwide community service, these groups exemplify the highest level of volunteerism.”

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