By Susan E. Campbell
Imagine calling for an ambulance and wondering when it will arrive, if at all. Yet that was the reality for first response some 50 years ago.
“Each township had different response territories, and it could take a long time for an ambulance to get from one end of a territory to another,” said William Smith, a recently retired career firefighter and chief of operations for Community Emergency Corps based in Ballston Spa.
Community Emergency Corps is a nonprofit organization Smith has been a member of since 1998. Founded in 1966 by a group of concerned citizens, it provides emergency transport for the Village of Ballston Spa, Milton, the northern part of Ballston, and Middle Grove, an abutting section of Greenfield.
In the early years of the 50-plus year old corps, Smith said if an ambulance didn’t answer a call within 18 minutes, another would be called and there could be another 18-minute wait. But calls in Saratoga County today are dispatched centrally with the help of modern communications technology.
“Waiting for 30 minutes was no longer an option,” said Smith.
Back then all personnel were unpaid. By 1997 the corps was “struggling for volunteers,” he said. “With both the husband and wife working to bring money into the household, our volunteers had less time to dedicate.”
The struggle continues today as Smith, as chief, looks to supplement the few paid staffers with volunteers. It’s a struggle shared by most communities and the main reason ambulance companies in the area have gone out of business.
“Saratoga, Schuylerville, Mechanicville and Stillwater ambulances have all closed because of lack of volunteers and the high cost of paid staff,” he said. “Galway takes 300 to 400 calls a year, but cannot provide for all the residents, so it is on the cusp of closure.”
The solution has been merger. Smith said his agency will likely absorb Galway. By incorporating in this way, the local ambulance services can cover the community more quickly thoroughly.
Smith said Community Emergency Corps is a member of the Saratoga County emergency medical services. The chief officers of each agency meet monthly to talk about calls they have gone through and what they could have done better. They also talk about such issues as economies of scale through bulk purchases, billing problems, negotiating prices and legal concerns.
“We all benefit by sharing our experiences with one another,” he said. “It is important to all emergency services to have a voice and give input as to what works and what we need.”
Community Emergency Corps has two paid EMS crews on call all day, all year. There are four ambulances and three flag cars. There is always at least two staff on call with one as backup.
Smith is the one who schedules all four EMTs and 36 paramedics on the roster. He is in charge of hiring staff, ordering supplies and medicine, and all operations from the time the call comes in until the ambulance arrives at the hospital. But “the man with the checkbook,” he said, is the executive director Ray Otten.
An ambulance can cost $125,000 to $200,000. Smith said the agency has a $40,000 cardiac monitor in each vehicle. It was the first ambulance corps in the area to install a $45,000 automatic lift load system so emergency personnel don’t injure their backs lifting patients.
“The system pays for itself,” Smith said. “We are all self-insured through the county and it costs us if someone gets hurt. So an automatic lift saves money in the long run.”
Bills for services provided are usually reimbursed under an individual’s insurance plan, yet the corps receives only a small portion of the amount invoiced.
“We recoup what we can, but don’t send out for collection,” said Smith. “Those payments offset payroll, but town budgets handle equipment purchases.”
Community Emergency Corps reaches out to the community in other ways. The agency joins local fire departments in running the annual Toys for Tots fundraiser, helping with publicity and setting up drop boxes. Volunteers go to EMS Week at local schools and tell young people how an ambulance service works.
“We offer career internship exploration with the high school, which offers course credit for ride-alongs in our emergency vehicles,” he said.
Smith’s daughter was the first student in this program and she demonstrated that she had it in her to work in emergency medicine. She now works in Intensive Care at Samaritan Hospital in Troy.
“Her interest would not have peaked if she hadn’t done that course,” he said.
Volunteering has changed over the years.
“There used to be requirements for all volunteers like having to work one weekend a month or obtaining a certification,” for which Community Emergency Corps offers on-site source instruction, he said. “Today we ask for what you can give. Maybe it’s just two hours.”
There is also an active call for volunteer board members to help oversee finances.
“Some bankers have helped in the past. Others might like to help with public relations,” Smith said.
Last year volunteers did a bicycle helmet give-away during the school health fair. They custom fit and educated young people about bike safety and brain injury.
“There’s a job for everybody who volunteers,” he said.
“This type of business is different from a financial standpoint in that everybody here has another job. There’s no retirement plan and long, hard hours away from the family,” he said. “I don’t think the public knows how hard the EMS works.”
Over the years, with early detection of illnesses and cardiac issues, plus the advancement of defibrillator units, more advanced training for emergency responders meant more time involved for volunteers. Advancing to a paramedic level ambulance service has greatly enhanced how patients can be treated.
In 2017, Community Emergency Corps responded to 2,540 calls for assistance.
Visit communityemergencycorps.org for an audio history of the organization and information about volunteering.