NY town residents worry about response times after senior waits 50 minutes for ambulance

The town recently switched to an ambulance service two municipalities away and officials say response times currently average 15 to 18 minutes


Wendy Liberatore
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

GREENFIELD, N.Y. — Earlier this year, one of the residents of Prestwick Chase at Saratoga fell outside near her car. The staff, who are not supposed to move a person who has fallen, immediately called 911.

Then the staff waited and waited as the woman laid on the pavement in single-degree January temperatures. The staff finally decided to breach protocol, pick her up and bring her inside. The ambulance from Ballston Spa arrived 50 minutes after the call, the owner of the 55-plus senior community said.

“It was a long wait,” owner Fred McNeary said. “I don’t have a problem with any ambulance company, but the Ballston Spa ambulance has to drive through two municipalities, downtown Ballston Spa to downtown Saratoga Springs to get to Greenfield. At a minimum with no traffic and driving sensibly, it’s going to take 15 to 20 minutes. We usually see about a 20-minute response time. Fifteen would be really quick. It’s basic logistics.”

McNeary is just one of the people in the southeastern area of Greenfield who are distressed about EMS response times. For years, the town contracted with Wilton EMS, but the town dropped the service in the beginning of 2020 because the town expected to sign a deal with Saratoga Springs EMS. When Saratoga Springs deal dissolved after residents complained that their response times would increase, Greenfield decided to dole out that portion of the old Wilton domain to Ballston Spa. That area includes not only Prestwick Chase where hundreds of seniors live, but also some Skidmore College sports facilities, Saratoga Polo Association's fields, Stewart’s Shop plant as well as some mountain bike trails.

Supervisor Daniel Pemrick said the town saved $10,000 with the move from Wilton. The territory once covered by Wilton was divided between Ballston Spa and Corinth, both of which have a one-year contract with the town.

“The southern end of town has Ballston Spa and the northern end has Corinth,” Pemrick said Friday. “Not one complaint or concern has been expressed to anybody at town hall or me or the town board or to our ambulance providers that I’m aware of. I’m sure that it would have been brought to our attention if (long wait times) were the case.”

Pemrick did not want to further comment about the prospect of Wilton returning to the town’s EMS fold. He did say the $60,000 the town was to pay  to Saratoga Springs has since been divided between Ballston Spa and Corinth, because “they have to cover a bigger piece of the pie.”

Ballston Spa Community Ambulance Corps that responded to the Prestwick Chase calls said the switch is what caused the confusion. Executive Director Ray Otten of the EMS station said that the call was dispatched to Wilton. When it was realized Wilton doesn't receive the call, it finally was re-routed to Ballston Spa. He said he checked the times for that call and said his crew arrived 18 minutes after hearing from dispatch.

"Our average is 15 to 18 minutes," Otten said and said that particular call was an anomaly and it won't happen again.

The other complication with that call was because it was a fall, which also does not constitute full lights and speeding through red lights. Otten admitted, however, for the person on the ground, the wait "seems like a long time." He also said his ambulances go through Milton, not Saratoga Springs, to get to that area of Greenfield and do not have to dodge traffic.

Wilton EMS Chief Nash Alexander said his corps response time to that area of Greenfield averaged eight minutes and often was less. He also said that he would be happy to serve that area of Greenfield, but that "it's a town board decision, it's not up to us." He also said that Wilton EMS bears no ill-will toward the town.

A 2017 research letter from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a nationwide response time for EMS averages seven minutes from the time of the 911 call to arrival on the scene to urban and suburbia areas (populations of 2,500 to 50,000). It also found that the median time increases to more than 14 minutes in a rural setting (populations less than 2,500) with nearly one in 10 encounters lasting almost a half an hour. To align with the data, Greenfield, with a population of more than 7,700, should have an average wait time of seven minutes.

The same study also found that longer wait times are dangerous.

“Longer EMS response times have been associated with worse outcomes in trauma patients,” the JAMA letter read. “In some, albeit rare, emergent conditions (such as cardiopulmonary arrest, severe bleeding and airway occlusion), even modest delays can be life threatening.”

Thomas Mina, the owner of the thoroughbred farm Five Oak on Denton Road, said 15 to 18 at best is too long. A few years ago, a farrier suffered a heart attack in his barn. He was alive for most of the ambulance wait time, but by the time the ambulance arrived, 18 minutes later, the farrier was dead, Mina said.

He thought he was reliving that nightmare a few days ago when one of his workers fainted. The Ballston Spa ambulance took 17 minutes to arrive.

“It’s getting scary now,” Mina said. "Somebody is going to die."

Mina said he is so frustrated with the town that he is looking into withholding his property taxes until he gets some answers.

“The primary responsibility of any mayor or supervisor is the welfare and safety of the residents in the area,” Mina said. “It’s not paving roads or picking up garbage, it’s the welfare and safety. We are up in arms.”

The Orthweins of Bloomfield Farm agreed, saying the safety of residents must be a priority.

“I’m very concerned to hear that response times in our neighborhood are 20 to 40 minutes and that seems like an eternity when someone is in need,” Tabitha Orthwein said. “We are five minutes or less from Saratoga Hospital. Our current service is not the best option. Ballston Spa is too far away to service eastern Greenfield. It’s an impossible task to ask them to have a quick response time to our district.”

She also said the southeastern Greenfield is more heavily populated, making it even more important to have prompt coverage. Moreover, her husband Will Orthwein said, the neighborhood has only lived through two months of this expanded territory for Ballston Spa and most neighbors don’t realize they are affected by the change.

Pemrick defended Ballston Spa EMS, saying it is well-organized and has the support of Saratoga Springs EMS, if they can’t get to a call in a timely fashion.

After January's 50 minute wait, McNeary doesn't see it that way. He called the situation “critical” and does not think the $10,000 savings is worth it.

“You are putting a monetary amount on people’s health and well-being,” McNeary said. “In my mind, government is supposed to do for the people what they can’t do for themselves. Ambulance services I would put in that category. To save a lousy $10,000 and put someone’s life in jeopardy seems ridiculous.”

Orthwein echoed that sentiment, adding “I’d like to see the town board rectify this immediately.”

Otten said he doesn't think Pemrick is doing this to save money. And, he said, he's not doing it to bring in more cash.

"Our priority is the patient," Otten said.

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©2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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