By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City is moving ahead with plans to establish a professional emergency medical services unit instead of continuing to rely on the dwindling volunteer ambulance corps that has served the town for more than 50 years.
At its meeting Tuesday, City Council is expected to introduce two ordinances to formally create a new city-run EMS division that will take charge of ambulance and rescue operations. More details of the plan are expected to be released during the meeting.
In his budget address in February, Mayor Leonard Desiderio cited the “diminishing ability” of the volunteer ambulance squad to provide round-the-clock rescue services as the reason he supports establishing a professional EMS staff.
Founded in 1956, the ambulance corps has struggled recently to find enough volunteers to provide 24-hour service. City officials explained that the volunteers simply can’t devote enough time to the ambulance squad because of the demands of their full-time jobs.
Last year, Sea Isle hired a consulting company, EMS Consulting Services, to oversee the transition from a volunteer ambulance squad to a professional EMS unit that will operate under the city’s control.
Jennifer Somers, a representative of EMS Consulting Services, said it would be “an unsustainable model” if the city continued to depend on the struggling volunteer ambulance corps.
Somers estimated it will cost Sea Isle about $600,000 annually to run its own EMS unit. She noted that would represent a significant savings compared to the estimates of $900,000 to $950,000 per year that Sea Isle received if the town outsourced its ambulance services. She also stressed that Sea Isle would not retain control of the EMS operations if it relied on outsourcing.
Speaking to Council at its Feb. 28 meeting, Somers said the next step is to create the job descriptions for the EMS unit and begin the hiring process. The unit is expected to have eight to 10 full-time employees.
“We need to get ready and ramp up for the summer season,” Somers said.
Sea Isle officials have declined to characterize the plan as an outright takeover of the ambulance corps because volunteers will be used to supplement the full-time emergency workers as part of a “hybrid” force. Both squads will operate out of the existing ambulance building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard next to City Hall.
Desiderio pledged the city will work with the state Civil Service department to try to hire volunteers from the ambulance squad for the paid EMS unit. In addition to the eight to 10 full-timers in the new unit, there will also be eight to 10 part-time employees, according to City Business Administrator George Savastano.
“We will still maintain a volunteer corps, but the primary delivery of ambulance and emergency medical response services will be provided through the municipal government,” Desiderio said in his budget address.
The city’s 2017 operating budget includes about $500,000 in funding to create the new EMS unit. That funding is the principal reason the budget will require a small increase, less than a penny, in the local tax rate, Savastano said.
Desiderio believes Sea Isle’s ambulance corps is the oldest volunteer rescue squad in New Jersey. He praised the work of the volunteers, but stressed that his administration has concluded that a professional EMS unit is needed to keep the city safe.
“We’re in the process right now of a significant change to our operations, relative to public safety,” he said. “One year ago, the administration advanced a comprehensive study of our ambulance and rescue services, as we recognized the diminishing ability to continue with our volunteer ambulance corps in the same manner that we have for so long.”