Residents in a remote, wooded area in the southwest corner of Riverhead Town say they’re still experiencing 30- to 40-minute waits for an ambulance to arrive when they dial 911 — despite the fact that their homes are within a six-minute drive from the nearest ambulance headquarters — and in spite of complaining to the Riverhead Town Board about it for the past three-and-a-half years.
“Is it going to take the death of somebody to respond to this,” Cheryl Smith, of Manorville, asked the board at its meeting Tuesday night.
Smith was one of a group of Manorville residents who went to the board meeting Tuesday to demand action, as they had a year earlier.
“Nothing has changed,” said Manorville resident Clare Bennett Tuesday.
On Aug. 7, 2012, Bennett told the board of four separate occasions on which it took a Riverhead ambulance 40 minutes to arrive at her home, following calls to 911. Tuesday night, she told board members that it took an ambulance 37 minutes to respond to a 911 call about a choking toddler on Schultz Road.
“This is so absurd,” Bennett said. “It’s just absurd.”
The area is located near the Brookhaven Town border, just outside the Manorville ambulance district, which is served by the volunteer Manorville Community Ambulance Corps. But the 60-plus homes in the area are in Riverhead Town, within the Riverhead ambulance district, and are served by the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
A Manorville Community Ambulance station, located on South Street in Manorville, is located less than three miles away. The Riverhead ambulance headquarters, located on Osborn Avenue in central Riverhead, is just over 10 miles away. (Continued below map.)
But the relative distance of the two emergency service providers is just part of the problem, according to residents. Their location near the boundary line of the two towns has caused confusion for emergency dispatcher services for decades.
Enhanced-911, which was established in the late 1980s, provides dispatchers with the address of the 911 caller, based on a large database maintained by Verizon. Homes in that area of Manorville were entered in the database as located in Brookhaven. Calls to 911 from locations in Brookhaven Town are automatically routed to Suffolk County emergency dispatch. Calls to 911 from locations in Riverhead Town are automatically routed to Riverhead Police dispatchers. When a call goes to the wrong dispatcher, emergency response time is delayed.
The mother of the toddler with a medical emergency at their Schultz Road home last month said in a phone interview yesterday the 911 dispatcher asked her if she was in Riverhead Town, but called Manorville ambulance anyway. Manorville didn’t respond.
“Somebody somewhere dropped the ball,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
A Riverhead police officer arrived at her home and said he didn’t understand what was taking so long. After half an hour, a call was finally made to Riverhead ambulance, she said.
“They were great,” she said of RVAC. “They got there fast and they were great with my daughter. But if my daughter’s condition was life-threatening, she would have died.” She said she and her husband wrote letters to the Riverhead Town supervisor, County Legis. Al Krupski, Suffolk County Fire and Rescue Service and State Sen. Ken LaValle.
“The big issue for us is the confusion,” she said.
In an interview yesterday, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller explained that 911 calls come up on a computer terminal screen in the dispatch office. The screen shows the basic information about the call, including its origin point. The different dispatch offices — called public safety answering points — can transfer screens from one to another. The transfer can be done instantaneously, Hegermiller said. But first the dispatcher who received the call in error has to get a dispatcher in the correct office on the phone and explain to them what’s happened.
In addition to that, many of the homes in that area are incorrectly listed in the database as Calverton or Wading River, not Manorville. This causes additional confusion, because there is an Oak Drive in Calverton and an Oakwood Drive in Wading River. Both are miles to the north of the Manorville neighborhood, near the L.I. Sound.
Smith told board members a Riverhead ambulance responding to a 911 call at her home on Oakwood Drive in Manorville went to Oakwood Drive in Wading River instead. It arrived at her house 37 minutes after the 911 call was made. She said she’s had the same problem getting Riverhead Town police to respond to her home.
“They told me, ‘You don’t belong in this district, you’re in Brookhaven,'” she said.
Hegermiller acknowledges problems with the database. He said getting the errors fixed is a slow process. Riverhead has to fill out a form and send it to Suffolk County, which then makes a report to Verizon.
The Manorville residents would like to see their neighborhood removed from the Riverhead ambulance district and put in the Manorville district.
Last year, Supervisor Sean Walter told Bennett at the Aug. 7 public meeting that Riverhead should explore an intermunicipal agreement with Brookhaven Town that would allow the Manorville ambulance corps to serve the area.
“It’s a no brainer,” Walter said at the time.
On Tuesday, Walter said the agreement had to be worked out between the two private ambulance companies which are under contract with the respective municipal ambulance districts. He said he believed the two ambulance companies “are in discussions.”
“One of the districts is moving a little slower than we would like,” Walter said. “I’m not going to throw either district under the bus,” he said, referring to the ambulance companies.
“The problem is, it’s not really a board issue,” the supervisor said.
Even though the Riverhead Town Board sits as the governing body of the Riverhead Ambulance District, it has a contract with the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps, a private, nonprofit corporation, to provide emergency medical services in the entire township, except for the area within the Wading River Fire District. The current contract with RVAC is good through Dec. 31, 2014.
“We can’t surgically fix it,” Walter said. “We have the power to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said, alluding to the town’s right to cancel the contract with RVAC. “But that would be devastating.”
“I understand they’re working on it,” the supervisor said. “I’ve spoken to them multiple times about this. Maybe it’s time I meet with the two chiefs and you in my office,” he told Bennett.
RVAC president Bruce Talmage said in an interview yesterday the two organizations were indeed discussing a mutual aid agreement whereby both a Manorville first responder and a Riverhead ambulance would be dispatched on 911 calls originating in the southwestern corner of Riverhead. A lot of details need to be worked out, including the mechanism of dispatch, since Manorville is dispatched by the county and Riverhead is dispatched by Riverhead Police.
Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy, a former Riverhead ambulance volunteer and the town board’s liaison to the ambulance corps, took the opportunity to again pitch the idea of an elected board of commissioners for the ambulance district.
“I’m the one that wants to put somebody between the public and the ambulance, other than the town board, that will recommend to the town board what the town board should do,” Dunleavy said at the meeting.
“I want to thank you people for coming in, because I’ve been talking about this for three years and it hasn’t been done,” he said.
In an interview yesterday, Dunleavy said he favors a board of commissioners to run the ambulance district because their meetings would be open to the public. He said the RVAC board meetings are not open to the public and no one can attend unless they’re invited.
“No one has invited me to one of their meetings, so I don’t know what’s going on besides what they’re telling us,” Dunleavy said. He said he has not spoken to the Manorville ambulance president directly. “I don’t want to go over their [RVAC] head,” he said. “We’re listening to Riverhead.”
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