By Donald Wittkowski

A consulting firm is recommending that Sea Isle City should take over the town’s struggling volunteer ambulance corps, including hiring full-time employees and a chief.

EMS Consulting Services, in a presentation to City Council on Tuesday, said the plan would bolster an ambulance service that has been depleted by a lack of volunteers over the years.

Chuck McSweeney, owner of EMS Consulting, explained that the demands of full-time jobs and other responsibilities simply don’t leave people with enough free time to volunteer any more.

He said chances appear “bleak” that the downward trend would stop and that the ambulance corps could rebuild its ranks with new volunteers.

“We know the sustainability is not there due to the lack of volunteers,” McSweeney said.

After studying the demands, organizational structure and finances of the volunteer ambulance corps for the city, McSweeney’s Hammonton-based firm is proposing that Sea Isle’s government should take control.

He recommended hiring seven full-time workers and a chief to run the operation. However, McSweeney also proposed having a “hybrid” ambulance corps that would pay volunteers on a per-diem basis to supplement the full-time emergency workers when needed.

“We believe there is a very good fit here,” he said.

Currently, the city makes per-diem payments to 20 volunteers to provide ambulance service, but only about three or four of them are available on a regular basis, McSweeney said.

The system has become increasingly strained because of the requirement for more and more emergency funding appropriations by the city to keep a declining volunteer ambulance corps in existence, officials said.

“We talked about this, as a city government, for years. Quite frankly, it’s come to a head,” Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano said.

Savastano noted that for 28 months, the city has had to approve emergency funding resolutions to help keep the volunteer ambulance corps in operation. In addition to paying volunteers on a per-diem basis, the city also uses some of its full-time municipal workers to supplement the ambulance corps.

Savastano said the city administration headed by Mayor Leonard Desiderio wants to move forward with the takeover plan. He estimated that it would take several months to complete the transition.

“Our intention is to make this as seamless as possible,” he said.

Members of City Council are calling for more discussion before deciding whether to support the takeover plan. There was no indication Tuesday when Council may take a vote.

Councilman John Divney suggested that the city should consult with Cape May County officials about the possibility of establishing a countywide ambulance system to serve the municipalities.

“Maybe we should approach the county,” Divney said.

Councilman Frank Edwardi wants the city to give hiring preference to qualified local volunteers if the takeover is approved. He said that would recognize the years of service they have devoted to the city as volunteer ambulance crews.

City Solicitor Paul Baldini said the city would like to give hiring preference to qualified local volunteers, but would have to work within the requirements of the Civil Service system.

McSweeney and members of City Council praised the ambulance corps for doing a great job, despite its ongoing struggles to attract enough volunteers

It’s amazing. You guys are phenomenal,” McSweeney said to the volunteers at the City Council meeting.

Kris Lynch, who has served as chief of the volunteer ambulance corps for three years, said she was ambivalent about the takeover plan. She wants more details about how the transition to the city’s control would work before making up her mind.

“My main concern is the citizens of this city. I’m concerned we would not be able to do what we have been doing for them,” she said.

Lynch has served with the volunteer ambulance corps for 25 years. She said she would “be open” to possibly becoming the full-time chief if the city takes over. She stressed that her support for the proposal, if she gives it, does not depend on her being hired as the new chief.

During his presentation to City Council, McSweeney said it requires about $573,000 per year to run the ambulance corps. Later, in an interview, he said the city funds about half of the operation, or about $278,000 annually.

McSweeney said the city would pay about the same amount of funding that it does now if it takes over the ambulance service and hires full-time workers and a chief.

“We believe it would be a wash,” he said.

One key part of McSweeney’s takeover plan is to have the city hire an outside firm to handle third-party billings for people using the ambulance service. He estimates that could generate $138,000 annually for the city to help fund the ambulance corps.