Cherry Grove EMS Offers New Lifeline in Far-flung Area of Fire Island

From left: Ken Osman, Cherry Grove EMS chairman, and Paramedic Frank Morano Sayville Community Ambulance Company, check equipment on their new Advanced Life Support Vehicle (Photo by Richard Johnston)

When a Manhattan man recently suffered a heart attack days after his 63rd birthday on Fire Island, it was the first time a new EMS service in Cherry Grove saved a life.

That’s according to civic leaders who raised about $90,000 from donors to hire locally based paramedics, which have responded to more than 30 calls since May as of mid-August and will remain staffed through the end of September, when bustling crowds thin out at the beach. A heart attack patient who died while waiting for help last year galvanized the community, which had concerns about response times for medical emergencies in an area mostly accessible by boat. Now, locals hope to turn the pilot program into a taxpayer-supported service—a proposal that has been a tough sell in similarly situated neighboring FI communities.

“We’re counting that as our first save of the summer,” Ken Osman, chairman of committee behind the service, said of the July 16 cardiac arrest case. He said medical professionals at the scene told him: “This man would have died had it not been for…the paramedic.”

Of the 17 communities on FI, Cherry Grove is one of four on the east end in which Suffolk County police are the primary EMS providers, because the three fire departments that protect the eastern area lack EMS service. Ambulances are only found on the west end of FI, where half of the island’s other six fire departments have their own EMS service. But, because the Marine Bureau officers that patrol the entire barrier beach have such tough terrain to cover, response times for medical help in Cherry Grove can run longer than on mainland Long Island.

The move is a long time coming for Cherry Grove. Aside from being one of FI’s two LGBT resorts besides neighboring Fire Island Pines, it is also said to be the island’s oldest residential community—a superlative shared by Point O’ Woods.

Before the Grove, as locals call it, launched the 24/7 summer EMS service, those who called 911 seeking medical help would often be met by the community’s volunteer firefighters, who can transport patients but are not trained in advanced life support. Patients would have to wait for EMS-trained police officers to arrive for help saving lives. North Shore LIJ also launched the second of two immediate care clinics on FI—the other is in Ocean Beach—this summer, but nurse practitioners there are equipped to only treat minor injuries, rashes and other basic ailments, not more life-threatening cases, such as heart attacks.

“They’re enhancing their EMS services,” said Dr. Scott Coyne, medical director and chief surgeon for Suffolk County police, who brokered the deal allowing Cherry Grove to hire paramedics from the Sayville Community Ambulance Company. “It is extremely similar to fire and rescue district hiring a paid first responder to sit in the firehouse and respond to calls within seconds.”

Since there are no ambulances in Cherry Grove, Fire Island Pines or nearby Water Island and Davis Park, the only way off the island for patients needing emergency medical care on that side of the island is by police boat or helicopter.

Deputy Inspector Edward Vitale, commander of the Marine Bureau, said that his unit’s officers had an unofficial average response time of nine minutes for July in Cherry Grove when responding to reports of sick or injured people. That’s not including so-call “patrol pickups,” when officers are flagged down before a 911 call is made. Either way, it’s still less than 11-minute police response times for calls seeking medical help in July to Fire Island Pines, or 14 minutes to Davis Park.

But, because every second counts in responding to medical emergencies, Cherry Grove sought to supplant police when officers are not immediately available, so a local paramedic can respond even more quickly—just in case of a life-or-death situation.

Osman, the Cherry Grove EMS organizer, said the community’s new paramedics had an average response time of four minutes for the summer. He added that the community’s paramedics were also on the scene of a June house fire evaluating firefighters every 20 minutes to ensure they’re up to the task. That’s standard procedure nationwide, but the first time it was possible in the Grove.

The plan to convert the donation-driven pilot program to a taxpayer-funded system may require legislation similar to a New York State bill five years ago that would have created a special medical district in Fire Island Pines. Either way, Cherry Grove property owners will have to vote on whether they want the tax. A similar ballot in Fire Island Pines fell four points shy of the 50-percent needed to pass following a study and lobbying effort.

“Since that time nothing further has been invested in this issue,” said Dr. Ed Schulhafer, vice president of the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association and a proponent of bringing EMS to that community. “Recently some very serious medical situations have occurred in Fire Island Pines that would have benefited from the presence of an EMT response. It remains to be seen what the community wants to do.”

Diane Romano, president of the Cherry Grove Community Association, said she and her staff are still researching whether their community will need legislation to enact a taxpayer-funded EMS.

“The question is: How do we move forward with it?” Romano asked rhetorically. “We’re trying to see how. It is a significant issue.”

Davis Park Fire Department Chief Matthew Jones and a representative of the Davis Park Medical Association, which handles non-emergency patients in the community, said there are no plans to launch an EMS service in FI’s easternmost community. Representatives of the Davis Park Association, which represents homeowners there, did not respond to requests for comment.

Coyne, the police medical director, noted that he would help Fire Island Pines and Davis Park set up similar programs if asked, but so far no such requests have been made.

Osman, the Cherry Grove EMS organizer, posed this question to opponents of raising local taxes to fund such new emergency medical services: “How much is your life worth?”

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