JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown city officials are taking steps to create an ambulance service that would have first priority in responding to emergency calls in the city.
Johnstown Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said the city ambulance service would operate out of the fire department and would be staffed by fire department members with paramedic and Emergency Medical Technician training.
"This is something that's been in the works for over a year," Heberer said. "We're already conducting basic EMT training here at the fire department for about 12 guys, and then we're going to proceed with [Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support] training and purchase an ambulance and some equipment."
Establishing an ambulance service is something other nearby cities have done in recent years, including the city of Amsterdam and the city of Glens Falls. If established, Johnstown's municipal ambulance service would put some financial pressure on the Johnstown Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which operates right across the street from the fire department.
In recent months, the relationship between JAVAC and the city has been strained over unpaid fuel bills. JAVAC and the city had a longstanding "handshake agreement" whereby JAVAC was able to fuel its two ambulances at the Fulton County fuel depot on Route 29 using Johnstown's account. JAVAC ran up a bill of approximately $14,000, which it hasn't been able to repay in full, and Johnstown cut them off from the account two months ago.
Mayor Vern Jackson said Johnstown doesn't want to put JAVAC out of business, but he said part of his thinking in establishing an ambulance service is his concern for JAVAC's long-term stability.
"If they were to go out of business, we have to have something," Jackson said. "People have seen that other cities have done this. Volunteer ambulance corps are becoming like volunteer firefighters — lacking in people, personnel. JAVAC is seriously in debt, and I'm going to hold to my thoughts that that was financial mismanagement on their part. They approached us for assistance, and we referred them to the Johnstown Hospital Foundation, which gave them money. We can't step in. I said we aren't going to help an ambulance service that doesn't help themselves."
JAVAC President Duane Abbott said when he took over the organization in July it had about $80,000 in debt but has since cut that to about $50,000, of which he said about $11,000 is the money still owned to the city of Johnstown for fuel.
He said he agrees with Jackson's assessment of financial mismanagement, which is why he eliminated the employees he thinks were responsible. He said his organization is moving forward with a GoFundMe" page and other fundraising activities.
"Are we going to be closing the doors of JAVAC? Absolutely not. We're not going anywhere. We're here to stay," Abbott said.
Abbott said JAVAC handles between 1,700 and 1,800 calls per year in the territory established by its Certificate of Need, which includes the city of Johnstown and parts of the towns of Johnstown, Perth, Ephratah and the hamlet of Rockwood. He said the organization no longer has any volunteer members, other than himself and the board of directors. JAVAC employs between 18 and 20 part-time EMTs and paramedics and frequently incurs losses for calls that don't require hospital transport, he added.
If the city forms its own ambulance service, that will hurt JAVAC somewhat, he said.
"Will it put a little strain on our call volume? Yes," he said. "Will it be to the point where we can't even be operational anymore? No."
Heberer said Johnstown will be able to obtain a Certificate of Need to operate an ambulance within the city limits
A Johnstown-run ambulance service could be a source of revenue for the city, since it would be able to bill for ambulance calls.
Heberer said he believes all other municipalities in the region that operate ambulance services "at least break even."
Abbott said the revenue Johnstown gets for ambulance calls may depend on the type of calls needed and whether they have the personnel required for calls of varying severity. He said if JAVAC has paramedics available and Johnstown doesn't, JAVAC will still get the priority, even within the city of Johnstown. He said it is also possible both agencies could respond to calls, and some of the revenue from insurance companies or Medicare or Medicaid could be split between them.
Heberer said the Johnstown fire department has two paramedics on staff, and others will be getting the necessary training soon. He said he's opened the possibility of EMT training to staff who wish to participate, but that certification isn't required and is not yet a part of Johnstown's fire department union contract. He said that, in the future, Johnstown will include EMT training requirements in its civil service test for anyone who wants to be a Johnstown firefighter, as is currently the case in Gloversville.
Abbott said he doesn't want to be a "hater," and that his agency will work with Johnstown's municipal ambulance service if one is established, but he cautioned city taxpayers there will be an expense to creating the new service.
"Somebody is going to have to pay for the rig," he said. "Somebody is going to have to pay for the staff. Somebody is going to have to pay for the training. Who is that going to be? That's going to be the taxpayers. When it's us -- when our paramedics and EMTs have to go through training -- they are paying for it."
Heberer said the city is looking to purchase a fully equipped ambulance for about $140,000. He said part of his department's motivation in wanting to offer the service is filling gaps when JAVAC is not able to provide an ambulance.
"We want to provide a good ambulance service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said. "Our plan is to help JAVAC out and to run an ambulance as well, but they kind of stopped talking to us, so our intent is to move forward with a fire department ambulance service."
Abbott said he intends to improve the relationship between JAVAC and the fire department, regardless of whether the ambulance service is established.
"If the mayor wants to move forward with having an ambulance service, I can't stop him," he said. "No one in my agency can stop him. If that's the road they want to travel, then that's the road they are going to want to travel." he said. "My goal, and the people who work for me, is we want to serve the community. I don't want this bickering back and forth of who's going to go. I don't want bickering, we need to come to an equilibrium and not battle with the fire department.
"We must all get along."