Photo: Peter Blasl

A critical component of the Riverhead Ambulance District’s communications system broke down a week ago and the town has not yet replaced it, compromising the ambulance corps’ communications and services, according to Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps president Keith Lewin.

The ambulance corps is using a backup system set up by Suffolk Fire and Emergency Services with hand-held radios borrowed from the county. But RVAC was not able to borrow enough radios to equip its members and the system itself isn’t adequate for the district, Lewin said. For example, the county’s VHF system doesn’t reliably communicate with EMTs inside the hospital emergency room.

Lewin is frustrated by the town’s response to the situation. He said town officials are questioning who’s responsible for the cost of replacement equipment — the district or the corps, Lewin said.

“Our job is to protect the public. They need to just get it done,” he said. The equipment is owned by the ambulance district and the district is clearly responsible for it, Lewin said.

Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the town is not disputing its responsibility for the equipment. She wasn’t notified of the problem until Sunday and had her staff get on it first thing Monday morning, she said. Initially her staff questioned who owned the equipment, but that was quickly answered, she said.

Email correspondence between town officials and the ambulance corps indicates that the corps immediately reported the problem to the police department dispatch office. It is not clear whether the supervisor’s office was notified prior to Monday, when emails began going back and forth among RVAC officials, the supervisor’s office and other town departments.

According to Lewin, the ambulance district’s radio repeater — equipment that’s a combined receiver and transmitter that allows two-way radio signals to cover longer distances — died last Wednesday and Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps found its members unable to communicate throughout the ambulance district.

There was a backup system in place at the Riverhead Town Police Department that had been set up years ago, but when the repeater died last week, the corps discovered the backup system wasn’t adequate, Lewin said.

“We switched to it and found it didn’t have sufficient range. People outside the core area of the town couldn’t hear dispatches and couldn’t communicate,” he said.

“Then we went to the county.”

But the county was only able to give RVAC 20 hand-held radios and at any given time the corps usually has more than 50 radios deployed in the field, according to Lewin. The radios loaned by the county were assigned to RVAC’s in-house crews and most active responders.

“So many people don’t have communications” and can’t monitor the county radio. Riverhead PD can monitor it, Lewin said, “but can’t get to those of us that don’t have a county radio.” Neighboring EMS agencies who come into the Riverhead district on mutual aid calls — when RVAC gets overwhelmed by multiple simultaneous calls — also don’t have radios that operate on the county’s system.

Also, the county backup system uses a higher frequency and can’t penetrate concrete and steel, Lewin said. “When we have a crew in the emergency department [at the hospital] they can’t hear the dispatcher and can’t pick up a new call,” Lewin said. That typically happens quite often, he said.

The ambulance district’s existing radio equipment is old — the repeater, which has not been sold by the manufacturer for almost a decade, can’t even be repaired, Lewin said, because it’s no longer supported by the manufacturer.

The town can replace the repeater for $16,000, Lewin said.

“I don’t understand the problem,” he said. Replacing it can be done on an emergency basis, without seeking bids. Besides, there’s an existing state contract for it, he added.

The issue was not discussed by the town board at the work session last week or at the board meeting last night.

Councilman Tim Hubbard, the town board liaison to the ambulance corps, said today he learned of the equipment failure Monday when he returned from a vacation out of state last week.

Hubbard said the town has not responded quickly enough to fix the problem.

“All it takes is one mishap, God forbid. People’s lives are on the line,” he said.

Jens-Smith defended the town’s response. “We immediately reached out to the company that supplies this equipment to set up a meeting to address the problem. Our understanding is that the backup system supplied by the county is adequate on a temporary basis while we get a replacement.” The supervisor said said she wants to make sure the town buys equipment that won’t be soon rendered obsolete — for instance, should area EMS services switch from analogue to digital communications systems.

Everyone agrees the matter is urgent and that the ambulance district has money in its reserve fund to pay for it, Jens-Smith said.

“It’s absolutely a priority,” she said.

RVAC has been seeking an upgrade to the existing system for a long time, to provide better communications in some areas of the 78-square-mile district, such as Manorville, where the existing system — even when it’s working — provides poor service. That would require a new repeater and supporting equipment installed in the western end of town, a project that has a price tag of around $92,000 under a state contract, Lewin said. He said he hopes the town will agree to that upgrade soon, but for now the most urgent thing is replacing the radio repeater that broke down last week.

RVAC is an extremely busy emergency service, answering more than 4,000 calls annually.

RVAC is a private not-for-profict corporation established in 1978 to provide emergency medical services to the Riverhead Ambulance District, a special tax district that encompasses most to the Town of Riverhead — Wading River and parts of Manorville are outside the Riverhead Ambulance District. Lewin was a founding member of the organization. The ambulance corps provides EMS services under a contract with the district, which is governed by the town board. The most recent contract, for a five-year term, was signed in 2015.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.