The exact future of Mahwah’s ambulance system is undecided, but it will include volunteer squads, according to a statement made by township administration Thursday night.
The announcement was in response to a presentation by members of Mahwah’s volunteer ambulance corps asking the township government to leave the current emergency response system in tact. The presentation revealed that the corps has recently met with Mayor Bill Laforet to discuss its fate.
“My goal is simple. I must take steps to ensure an effective and efficient ambulance corps service to this community when a 911 call is placed,” Laforet said when explaining why he may propose to alter the current system.
Business Administrator Brian Campion explained that the township is “looking into multiple proposals and models, but all of them anticipate that both volunteer squads will remain in existence.” According to Campion, the administration is considering a system in which a dispatcher’s first two calls during an emergency situation would go to Mahwah’s volunteer squad. If they didn’t answer or couldn’t respond, the third call would go to a third party, private service.
Currently, if Mahwah’s squads cannot respond to an incident, dispatchers call for mutual aid – back up from other nearby municipalities, like Ramsey and Wyckoff. According to Laforet the other towns’ “welcome mat[s are] wearing thin.”
Laforet told a crowd of about 50 volunteer ambulance workers at Thursday night’s meeting “it is not personally any of you. What you do everyday is amazing and something I could not do. It is the structure of the system that is being outpaced by the daytime population in Mahwah,” which he estimated to top out at 50-55,000 people, plus those driving through.
According to Laforet and Campion, the main goal in looking at restructuring options is to improve ambulance response time. “I must examine…response times, the time it takes for an ambulance to sign into service, the number of times we need to rely on other towns, the increasing number of calls, and the lower number of actual volunteers that are available to answer these calls,” he said. “I can’t make what are potentially death decisions based upon emotion.”
Laforet said he has called the ambulance corps to several meetings since December to discuss “potential solutions to these issues. While Company #4 is very understanding of the problem and willing to help, Company #1 has refused,” he said.
According to Maryann Mauro, the president of Company 1, “we just want to continue what we do, because we are very good at it.” She confirmed that Company 1 has obtained a lawyer to deal with Laforet’s proposals. “We took an aggressive approach,” she said. “We are willing to negotiate, but we don’t want to be bullied, or told how to run our business.”
According to a presentation Company 1 member Cord Meyer made to the council at the meeting, the corps objects to the addition of a paid service as the “third call.” He cited two reasons – first, the loss of mutual aid from nearby towns, and second, the cost of the third party service to residents. Other towns’ volunteer services, he said, would not agree to come to Mahwah in an emergency if the township adds a private service to its plan, because the private service will not reciprocate the gesture, should there be an emergency in another town.
He also said the third-party service would charge residents for transports to area hospitals. “We want to keep our service, which is 100% free to the residents of the township of Mahwah,” Meyer said.
Residents in the audience Thursday expressed concern at the possibility of having to pay for ambulance services. John Vasties asked the council, “If your house is burglarized and you call the police, do you get a bill? If you house burns down and you call the fire department, do you get a bill? If there is a medical emergency and you call an ambulance, should you get a bill? People should not have to think twice before calling 911 because you might get a big bill.”
Laforet said the systems he’s considering would allow for soft billing, whereby the third-party ambulance companies would try to bill a patient’s insurance company three times – the minimum required by law. “After that, they would not pursue residents for the balance that the insurance company didn’t pay. And, if you have no insurance, it wouldn’t cost you anything. We would pass a municipal ordinance saying that, which is something that Ridgewood currently has in place.”
Town Council President John Spiech pointed out that "if Mahwah's ambulances don't miss any calls, there will be no need to call for the third party service."
The corps and mayor also disagree about the “fundamental issues” with the current system. Laforet claims Mahwah has missed 600 calls in the past five years. A “missed” call, he said, is one that must be sent out to a different agency because the company called could not respond.
Mauro said she “does not understand why the mayor is looking so far back. How is what happened that many years ago relevant to what we are doing now?” The corps cited statistics saying that in the past three years, Company 1 has called in mutual aid crews to answer calls 64 times, out of over 2,900 total calls.
Laforet did acknowledge an improvement in the performance of the corps over the past few years, especially, he said, since the implementation of the “I Am Responding” tool in 2009. The computer system lets police dispatchers see who is on duty in each company at all times. “The problem is with a lack of daytime volunteers,” Laforet said.
The administration said that it has not made any decisions, and will continue to include the corps on talks about its future decisions. “Whatever we agree on, we would need to take it to the council for approval,” Campion said.
The council requested administration present it with all of the response time statistics the township keeps before asking it to approve a decision.
Company 1 representatives said they would be open to discussions with the township, but that they are not willing to add a third party service to what they already do. “If [the mayor] is looking for the best possible system, he’s looking at it,” one volunteer said.