Dispatchers will send Mohawk Ambulance crews to emergency calls starting Monday after Rotterdam Police Chief James Hamilton decided the town’s paramedic service could no longer be adequately staffed.
Mohawk, a for-profit company based in Schenectady, has promised to station two ambulances with paramedics at the Rotterdam Senior Center until January, when a new ambulance contract can be awarded. The move means ambulances from Rotterdam Emergency Services Inc. — the nonprofit company that has served the town for years — will no longer be sent to calls unless both rigs from Mohawk are already attending to emergencies.
“Obviously, when we call Mohawk, we’ll get a paramedic with an ambulance,” Deputy Chief William Manikas said of the new directive Friday. “We won’t be sending REMS initially because we’ll have no paramedics to send.”
The change is slated to come on the day REMS’ contract with Rotterdam expires and will essentially eliminate the town’s paramedic service, which was slashed from the 2014 budget passed last week and initially slated for dissolution by the New Year. Manikas said the nine remaining part-time paramedics will be eliminated, while the two remaining full-time workers will serve out the year dismantling the program.
“There’s obviously a lot of work to be done to decommission the paramedic program,” he said.
Under the existing system, civilian paramedics funded through the Rotterdam police budget are dispatched to emergencies along with REMS, which only provides basic life support services. REMS does not receive town funding but does provide it some revenue through patient billing on calls that require a paramedic.
Manikas said the police have had difficulty filling all of the paramedic shifts for months, but the serious problems didn’t begin until this fall. Those issues coincided with Supervisor Harry Buffardi voicing his intention to eliminate the paramedic program in his preliminary budget, which was released in September.
“It’s gotten to a critical stage at this point,” he said.
With Mohawk answering all calls in town, REMS stands to lose the bulk of its funding for the rest of November and all of December. REMS derives its funding by billing clients. The two companies are the only ones expected to answer a request for proposals the town is expected to issue for its ambulance service contract next month.
Buffardi, a Democrat, has enjoyed a solid four-vote block of support on the Town Board this year but is poised to lose one supporter when recently elected Republicans Joe Villano and Richard Larmour join the mix in January. Deputy Supervisor Wayne Calder is expected to recuse himself from any vote that involves Mohawk because his son-in-law serves as the company’s director of operations.
On several occasions, REMS has offered to absorb the town’s paramedic program so it could operate as an advance life support ambulance service. Dean Romano, who worked as one of the civilian paramedics and was hired by the company as a coordinator to oversee the transition, said REMS can now provide nearly all of the advance life support services provided by Mohawk.
“In fact, we are staffing with paramedics now,” he said. “There should be no problem whatsoever with them dispatching us.”
Romano said he alerted town officials of the company’s readiness, save for a pending approval to dispense three controlled drugs expected to come next week. Yet he said his correspondences to Buffardi’s office got no response.
“I’m a paramedic, not a politician,” he said. “But somewhere along the line, someone is being less than honest.”
Buffardi disputed this characterization. He claims REMS has never shown him proof the company could operate in the absence of the town’s paramedic program and the switch to Mohawk is to ensure the safety of residents.
“They haven’t provided full [basic life support] services,” he said. “I’m not going to put the town at risk thinking that they can do [advanced life support] services.”
Buffardi, who has publicly criticized the service provided by REMS lately, reiterated his concerns about the company’s response times and ability to fulfill the town’s need for two ambulances. He said Mohawk’s agreement with the town is only short-term, until a contract is awarded.
“In under a month, we’re going to have this done,” he said.
Yet some believe an agreement has already been reached. Stan Wilgoki, a part-time paramedic poised to lose his job, blasted the Buffardi administration for creating the circumstances that have made it easier for Mohawk to start servicing the town. He believes the understaffed paramedic program was by design, so that the ambulance contract could be swiftly handed to Mohawk.
“There have always been undertones and rumors that a contract has already been signed between the administration and Mohawk,” he said.