Diaz Ambulance officials are pleading with town leaders for more money as the ambulance provider for the town and village of Saugerties faces increased demand at the same time it faces trouble paying enough to retain EMTs.
Lisa Benjamin, CFO, manager and paramedic at Diaz called on the town to provide funding to purchase a third ambulance to keep up with increased demands and to allow Diaz to pay EMTs more than $14.50 an hour at last Wednesday’s Saugerties Town Board meeting.
She said at that hourly rate, EMTs often leave when salaries are upped by Woodstock or commercial ambulance services like Mobile Life Support that serves Kingston and its surroundings.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Benjamin said. “There are loyal people who worked at Diaz who have to work multiple jobs to live.”
She said people can make more money working at a fast-food restaurant. “My kids are making $17 an hour at McDonald’s.”
Being with an EMT comes with constant education to re-up certification along with terrible hours. And unlike commercial agencies, Diaz cannot offer benefits like dental and vision insurance. Diaz does offer medical insurance to its employees.
“We have to be able to pay our people a little more to retain who we have,” Benjamin said. “With the extra money, they won’t have to be working 60-70 hours a week.”
Benjamin said she does medical billing and sometimes the insurance companies pay and sometimes they don’t.
She said all of this is going on while they’re doing 3,000 calls, often averaging 250 calls a month with two crews with 24-hour service while facing a countywide shortage of paramedics.
To cover all those calls with just two crews, Diaz leans on a multiple mutual-aid plan with other agencies. But if an ambulance comes from Woodstock, then Woodstock is not covered.
She said they can also turn to fire departments like Centerville-Cedar Grove and Mount Marion who can send volunteer firefighters to administer some care.
“But they’re running like crazy,” she said. And regulations preclude firefighters from transporting patients to the hospital.
“The fire department responds to the scene and we can’t transport,” Centerville-Cedar Grove Fire Department Chief Jim Mullen said. A delay on a mutual-aid response can make the difference between life and death when seconds count, he said.
And firefighters say the calls that end up going to area fire departments have risen sharply in recent years.
Glasco Fire Department Assistant Chief Raymond Mayone, Jr. said before the pandemic they’d get a few calls to assist Diaz with a cardiac arrest case, with the intent of getting someone out there to save a life. But in the last two years those calls have increased 30 percent, he said. “That has tremendously affected us,” he added. Mayone said with this arrangement firefighters can at least provide some level of care to a patient when an ambulance can be as much as 45 minutes or more away.
“We’ve sat on medical scenes for 45 minutes to an hour to wait for ambulances from Dutchess,” Mayone said, recalling one occasion where an ambulance had to travel all the way from Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie to respond to a call.
“Folks don’t realize we’re lucky to have a paid ambulance service,” he said. “I listen to calls and in most surrounding districts where they have volunteers, they go second or third dispatch and an ambulance can be 20-30 minutes away.”
Someone can dial 911, only for a dispatcher to find the ambulance service is not responding, he said. In that case, the dispatcher just has to keep calling and reaching out to other agencies, which can lead to delays of up to 90 minutes, the chief said.
Mayone said it’s a shame EMTs make just $14.50 an hour. Mayone added that he runs his own business with 65 employees and he recently hired a guy to wash trucks at $18 an hour.
Mullen said everyone in the town, including the board members themselves, has a need for EMS. “It’s unacceptable if you can’t find funding for a third ambulance and compensation for Diaz,” he said.
“These guys are saving your families when you have a cardiac arrest,” Mayone said. “It takes a very special individual to provide medical treatment nine to ten hours a day, often in houses that are disgusting from when a wounded person can’t take care of it.”