on August 27, 2014 at 7:10 AM, updated August 27, 2014 at 7:11 AM
Hoping to combat dwindling volunteer numbers and rising response times, the Lopatcong Emergency Squad will soon begin billing for services and supplementing its volunteers with paid staff members.
Lou LaFord, vice president of the squad, said it has been a "tough pill to swallow" but leaders have recognized the all-volunteer model Lopatcong Township has relied upon for decades is no longer sustainable.
Coverage gaps are growing, calls are being dropped and response times have suffered.
Simply put, the squad cannot put residents' health secondary to its desire to remain a 100 percent volunteer organization, he said this week.
"It's something we didn't want to see happen, but we have to do what's best for the residents," said LaFord. "We can't let pride and egos get in the way of that. We have to do what's best for the patients."
The decline in volunteers reached a crisis point in the township five years ago, and despite attempts to recruit more bodies to fill the ranks, the squad has continued to struggle with low numbers. The squad, serving Lopatcong Township and a majority of Harmony Township, has about a dozen active volunteers.
LaFord said that is about half of the number needed to be sustainable.
"At this point we're operating an EMS where coverage is a significant and severe issue," said Brad Russo, a Phillipsburg-based attorney who is helping the rescue squad through its transition. "The daytime coverage is almost nonexistent because that's when people work."
When calls to Lopatcong go unanswered, they are picked up by neighboring squads, many of which already bill for service. It typically takes an extra four to 10 minutes before an ambulance is on the road, officials said.
LaFord is alerted on his cellphone every time an emergency call comes in. In a business where every second counts, he said, it can be frustrating to know no one in Lopatcong will be able to respond.
"It drives me up a wall," he said.
In the new hybrid model, LaFord said, paid members will man the station on weekdays during daytime hours, 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. Volunteers would be on call overnight.
As part of the transition, the squad will also begin billing insurance companies and patients for service, something it has never done.
According to Russo, the bill will initially be sent to the individual's insurance provider, Medicare or Medicaid. What, if any, balance remains would then be sent to the patient.
He stressed the squad would be considerate of each patient's financial situation and will be willing to work with residents.
"We have a lot of discretion with working with individuals on any excess, depending on their financial circumstances," he said.
Struggles not unique
The struggle to find volunteers isn't unique to Lopatcong Township.
Last year, EMS officials said a shortage of volunteers was hitting squads throughout the area and beyond with more people either unwilling or unable to volunteer their time.
In response, hybrid squads similar to what Lopatcong has in mind have already been implemented in squads serving Milford and Holland Township, Clinton and Flemington and Raritan Township in Hunterdon County.
In 2006, Washington became Warren County's first hybrid department. Soon after,Mansfield Township, Phillipsburg and Hackettstown followed suit.
Many said they believe it to be a sustainable model for the larger rescue squads, while benefiting residents who have seen improvements in response times.
"In those towns that we've seen, it's worked great," Russo said. "We don't have an option at this point, but by getting paid employees and attracting the most qualified employees, without question response time is going to be a lot better."
Township Mayor Douglas Steinhardt said the situation in Lopatcong is a sign of the times and reflective of what many volunteer organizations are dealing with.
"I think there is less of interest in volunteerism on one hand," he said. "On the other hand, whether it's the economy or just demands on families and finances, there are more families where both spouses work. It makes it harder to get away to volunteer for things like fire and EMS."
Volunteers still needed
Lopatcong is making its way through the requirements it needs to meet in order to become a billing service.
LaFord said officials do not yet have an idea of how many paid staff positions there will be, noting it could fluctuate depending on the number of volunteers. As for current volunteers, if they wanted to pursue a paid position they would have to quit and reapply, Russo said.
He added the change does not mean volunteers are no longer needed in Lopatcong. The squad will continue to actively recruit volunteers.
"We're still deeply committed to the volunteer component of this organization," Russo said. "That's always been the heart and soul of this organization."
The Lopatcong squad is a private, nonprofit organization. It receives some funding from the two townships for its services. Russo said the switch will not create any additional burdens for taxpayers.
"We are certainly not asking more from the town," he said. "Hopefully we are reducing that or eliminating that."
Lou LaFord, vice president of the Lopatcong Emergency Squad, encourages residents with questions about the transition to email the squad email@example.com.