ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. — While most urban and suburban communities in Erie County are covered by commercial ambulance services, many rural areas in the southern part of the county rely entirely on volunteer paramedics and EMTs, but that may soon change.
2 On Your Side has learned exclusively that during his State of the County address on Thursday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz will announce a plan to create a paid ambulance service to assist the volunteers and improve response times.
"We're going to be the safety net," said Gregory Gill, Erie County Deputy Commissioner for EMS. "When it does get busy in their areas, they can call on Erie County, and if we have resources, we'll send them down to help out."
Gill said the goal is to have five ambulances operated 24/7, with a focus on the towns that are currently covered entirely by volunteers, though the operating certificate being sought would cover the entire county.
Instead of pulling staff from other operators, Gill said the county plans to do its own training.
"That's going to take us probably to mid year to get that up and running and then the program's about a year," Gill said. "But eventually you'll start to see an influx of paramedics that will support all the services that are out there."
Even prior to the announcement, there's already bipartisan support in the Southtowns.
"They're overworked," Town of Aurora Councilmember Luke Wochensky, a Democrat, said of the volunteer paramedics and EMTs. "They're such great volunteers that they really want to give back to the community. But we asked too much of them. And so this is just a little bit of help to help them out, make sure that they have some time to sleep and eat and be with their families, in addition to their main jobs."
Republican Town of North Collins supervisor John Tobia said this will have a major impact on his constituents and take away some of the stress placed on the volunteers, or "heroes" as he called them.
"This is about saving lives," Tobia said. "And this is going to give our volunteers a little bit of a break that they don't have to respond to every call, because there's now another resource out there to respond."
Gill said it will cost more than $1 million to purchase and equip the five ambulances, and it can take six to nine months or longer to get delivery.
The plan also calls for the construction of a Southtowns substation to house not only the ambulances but also other county emergency vehicles and equipment. It would also serve as a backup dispatch and emergency operations center. The facility could cost up to $2 million.
Salaries and benefits for the dozens of employees would also add to the price tag, but supporters said it's well worth it.
"I feel more comfortable my family, my parents, we're all a bit safer after this program has been implemented," Councilmember Wochensky said.
"This is going to save people's lives," Supervisor Tobia said.
The ambulance service would bring in revenue from transports, though it's expected the program would operate in the red for a while due to large upfront costs.
Gill said the plan also calls for two Nurse Navigator positions. During an EMS dispatch, they can provide treatment information to patients who wouldn't necessary need an ambulance transport, which would further free up resources.
After Poloncarz's announcement Thursday, the proposal will go before the Erie County Legislature for consideration and approval.
The county has already gotten verbal approval from New York State, so obtaining the necessary Municipal Certificate of Need isn't expected to be difficult.