Schoharie County's rescue squads in trouble


By Jim Poole

Schoharie County's rescue squads are in trouble.
Difficulties in recruiting and retention have resulted in declining manpower that jeopardizes service to the public.
It's a longstanding problem that's just getting worse, according to Andy Cuccinello, coordinator of the county's Emergency Medical Service.
Mr. Cuccinello formed a committee of fire chiefs, rescue squad officers, town supervisors and residents that has identified the problem and is looking for solutions. A lack of manpower means some squads can't answer daytime calls or have long response times that may leave patients suffering.
"Has anyone died because of this? Not that I'm aware of," Mr. Cuccinello said. "But is someone who has chest pain or a broken leg suffering if he has to wait 40 minutes? Absolutely."
In recent years, fewer volunteers have joined squads because they're too busy with family duties or holding down two jobs in a weak economy, Mr. Cuccinello said.
Or they don't want to endure increasing training requirements.
For some rescue jobs, the training is "two nights a week for five months," said Chuck Melszer of the Summit Rescue Squad.
"People don't have time for that. And training for recertification just goes on and on and on."
However, the training is essential to satisfy the increasing demands of the public.
"Requirements increase because people expect more, and rightly so," Mr. Cuccinello said.
Squads have tried recruiting through open houses and campaigns, but they meet with varied success.
Bob Price, president of the Scho-Wright Rescue Squad, said a recent open house added two or three new members.
"And fortunately, we've added some excellent new members over the past year and a half," Mr. Price said. "For us, it's not so bad."
Others haven't had such success. One squad president went door to door over nearly his entire district.
"And he got just two people, and only one stayed with the squad," Mr. Cuccinello said.
"If we get one person per year, we're doing really good," added Sharon Springs Fire Chief Greg Baxter. "They're not beating down our doors."
Retention is another issue. Because the ranks are so thin, dependable volunteers must answer more calls.
"If they have to answer every call, they get burned out. That's what hurts," Mr. Baxter said.
Besides burnout, there's aging. Mr. Cuccinello said the average volunteer age is in the 50s. Eventually, older volunteers just can't handle the physical demands of the work.
That's a concern for Mr. Price. Although Scho-Wright is in relatively good shape with 40 active members, Mr. Price is worried about the next few years.
"Sometimes on my crew, I'm the baby, and I'm getting into my late 70s," Mr. Price said.
Mr. Cuccinello's committee is a regeneration of one formed five years ago.
"We identified the problems but never went any further," he said. "Now we have to. This is serious and it's not getting any better."