'A lot we need to do': State, Cayuga County officials address emergency services issues

Originally published in Auburnpub.com on February 20, 2022.

AUBURN — State and Cayuga County officials met last week to discuss how to handle growing emergency medical services challenges, with intentions to continue discussion in order to find solutions. 

Over 35 people attended a roundtable meeting on EMS and fire department services at Cayuga Community College in Auburn Feb. 10. Officials representing a spectrum of locations and expertise were present, including State Sens. John Mannion and Pam Helming, Assemblyman John Lemondes, Auburn City Manager Jeff Dygert, Auburn Fire Department Chief Mark Fritz, Auburn Ambulance Service Director Kezia Sullivan, TLC Emergency Medical Services Director of Operations Lon Fricano and Cayuga County Legislature Chair David Gould. Officials from other local fire departments and EMS providers were also present.

Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schenck facilitated the meeting, in which an assortment of challenges were discussed such as pay, worker burnout, more calls for service, fewer people to respond, difficulties in getting more young people involved, increasing state and federal requirements, the amount of time EMS certifications last and the ever-growing amount of training needed for EMS work. Several participants emphasized these issues are multi-faceted with no one-size-fits-all solution as they persist throughout the nation.

At one point, Schenck asked the state legislators if they had updates on these issues. Helming said "there are some line items" in the governor's proposed budget she thinks would be helpful but the line items aren't detailed.

She also noted a bill she co-sponsored creating a Rural Ambulance Services Task Force was signed into law in January. That task force would be a 12-member group evaluating challenges faced by ambulance service providers in rural areas and making recommendations for improvements to support public health and safety, according to the state Senate website.

"I think we are in a crisis situation," Helming said. "These issues existed long before COVID but with the pandemic it's really just highlighted, shown a spotlight, if you will, on just how bad the situation is. As we struggle to get more and more volunteers and even train paid folks I agree that there's a lot we need to do to entice people to join this field and and then to get them to stay." 

Mannion gave some legislative updates, including a new law that acknowledges 911 dispatchers as first responders and a bill about "being able to directly bill (for services.)"

"That went through the Senate, it didn't go through the Assembly and it's something that is a priority, it's a priority mentioned to me long before I was elected into office that this was an issue," he said. "It moved through the Senate, got through, was passed, didn't go anywhere in the Assembly, got to que that back up again this year, see if we can get any movement on it."

In an interview with The Citizen Wednesday, Schenck said he partnered with the Cayuga County Emergency Management Office and officials with local fire stations and EMS providers to put the meeting together. The sheriff said he "reached out to our elected officials" because he speaks with them on a regular basis.

While he said he isn't well-versed in all of the issues discussed at the meeting because it's not his field, he attended a meeting of the Cayuga County Fire Advisory Board in November. Fire chiefs brought up EMS concerns, which is what inspired Schenck to help put together the roundtable. That said, he stressed he did it in collaboration with local EMS providers.

"I think it was very educational for everyone in the room and I think it certainly helped our elected leaders both at the state and county level understand what the challengers are and what issues we need to address," he said. "The whole goal of that meeting was to not only get the issues out on the table but to educate those elected leaders about what we're facing and to start the dialogue and try to come up with a plan to continue addressing these problems to move forward."

There are plans to keep these conversations going. Schenck said Dale Currier, the county's director of emergency services, will be "following up with some of the notes from the meeting" and with the county's EMS providers and fire departments and county Legislature in the near future "to determine what can we do moving forward to help continue to work on these issues." He added based on his prior experiences with Helming, Lemondes and Mannion, he expects they will follow up with the county.

Currier told The Citizen the meeting went well.

"From a community perspective, there really wasn't anything new or a surprise that came up at that meeting. What was good to hear was that are some legislative actions in the works that some people at the meeting, myself included, were not aware of. Certainly it was obvious that the political folks from Albany were aware of all the issues that were brought up," he said. "The original intent of the meeting was to express Cayuga County's concern formally that these various programmatic are impacting us just like it is other counties or other states. This is definitely a nation-wide issue."

Currier also talked about plans to follow up with the people and organizations involved in the Feb. 10 meeting.

"As we can, we're putting together the information that was presented and we will at some point look at how best to get the information back to the people who attended and we want to get some other information to go along with that," Currier said. "Keep in mind, pretty much everything that was presented has been a problem for 10 years. This is not new. It's gotten much worse and it's gotten worse much faster in the last couple years."