WVAC president announces plans to step down

Some changes earlier this year have rocked the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, but those close to the organization insist all is well and it is on a steady course. Others are not so sure.

March found new faces covering the day shift when Norwalk Hospital EMS was contracted to provide paid EMTs, replacing veteran Susan Kellogg, a founding member of the corps, and Linda Voulgarakis, who had been handling the day shift.

In addition, Chris Gardner, president of the ambulance corps, announced he will step down from his position in the fall. He will remain a member of the corps.

According to Mr. Gardner and former president Ron Hitter, the decision to make the changes in the day shift revolved around legal and economic realities.

Paying EMTs who were also volunteering for the ambulance corps was a violation of the Connecticut Fair Labor Standards Act, they said. They also said the amount being paid — around $30 per hour plus $45,000 per year in health benefits, according to Mr. Hitter — was well above what it will cost the corps through its contract with Norwalk Hospital. (Norwalk Hospital also provides paramedic service to Wilton.)

The contract was signed in March of this year, Mr. Gardner said, and will be up for renewal, if the corps chooses, in March 2015.

The new EMTs are at the corps headquarters in the town hall complex on Danbury Road from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Two EMTs are on duty Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and one is on duty Monday and Friday.

Mr. Hitter, who continues to volunteer at the corps, said the situation with paid volunteers was untenable.

“If you are a volunteer EMT you cannot do paid shifts. … If you have a paid person, you lose a volunteer.”

While the corps receives insurance payments for its calls to patients who have insurance, 65% of the calls are to senior citizens on Medicare, which pays much less than private insurance. The rest of the organization’s income is from donations. The town makes a minimal contribution.

With that, Mr. Hitter said, “we can’t spend $45,000 to $50,000 on medical benefits.

“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” he said, pointing out there are two sides to the ambulance corps: the operations side and the business side.

“Financially we’re strong right now,” Mr. Hitter said.

Whereas in the past, organizations like the ambulance corps or a volunteer fire department were fraternal in nature, in today’s economic climate they are more like businesses.

Corps and town finances used to be more closely intertwined, but that changed in 2012 and now the corps is an independent entity with its own accounting system, outside billing, auditors, etc.

“We set in a whole structure to handle financial accounts,” said Mr. Hitter, who was president from the middle of 2009 to the middle of 2013, when Mr. Gardner was elected. “It was time and to the benefit of the corps.”

Not everyone sees it that way and there have been grumblings about the way the corps operates although no one The Bulletin reached would speak on the record. There are those who feel Ms. Kellogg and Ms. Voulgarakis were treated poorly, but a call on Tuesday to Ms. Kellogg asking for comment was not returned and Ms. Voulgarakis could not be reached before deadline.

Some members were also put on leave for inappropriate behavior. Some members left the corps for a variety of reasons, causing membership to dip. The result is that remaining members have had to pick up extra shifts to keep coverage at adequate levels.

“A lot went down in a short period of time,” said Nancy Capelle, an EMT and corps member.

When asked about his decision to step down, which was announced at the last board meeting, Mr. Gardner would only say the amount of time needed to run his own business and the corps was “prohibitive,” although he added he did not want to deal with “people who are out gunning for you.”

“My goal is to lead the organization as best I can within the constraints I have, relying on just 40 members” he said. “There are a number of folks with ulterior motives trying to destroy an organization in existence since 1976.”

Mr. Gardner, who has been with the corps since 1977, said he believes “I’ve done a good job.”

A spokesman for Norwalk Hospital EMS, which, as a sponsoring hospital monitors the ambulance corps’ performance, said he has “no worries” about coverage in Wilton, adding, “They are covering their call volume,” and since the switch the corps’ request for mutual aid has actually gone down since the switch.

Mr. Gardner confirmed that saying, “We haven’t not answered a primary call. Our secondary calls we are hitting fairly regularly.” The corps has also provided mutual aid to other communities.

Response times also continue to be good, said Mr. Hitter, who keeps track of statistics. The average time from dispatch to when the ambulance is on its way is just under two minutes.

“Sometimes it’s 30 seconds or less,” he said, depending on whether it is a day call or EMTs are roused from sleep during a night shift.

From the time of dispatch to arrival averaged eight minutes, 17 seconds in July, he said. That takes in calls from all around Wilton and calls where the ambulance does not need lights and sirens.

Members needed

It is not unusual for volunteer ambulance organizations to pay for day shift coverage and many communities contract with staffing agencies.

This does not alter the fact the corps is down in manpower and mounting a membership drive. In addition to fewer people having the time to volunteer, the requirements to become an EMT are great.

The class is costly — as much as $1,000 — and requires 190 hours. Candidates must also have 10 patient contacts from a sponsoring hospital and pass a state-sponsored test and practical test. There is also a six-month probationary period and one to two hours of training per month.

Right now, corps members are contributing 36 to 48 hours per month.

“When you put that on top of people working, it’s one heck of a commitment,” Mr. Gardner said, “and I thank every single member we have.”