Tense debate in Cohoes over who should provide EMS

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13 Investigates has learned the City of Cohoes will need to come up with $600,000 a year in order to avoid a double-digit tax hike next year, after its longstanding agreement with an ambulance provider ended earlier in 2023.  

13 Investigates is reporting on issues with ambulances playing out in several local communities over the next week.

Some municipalities provide their own public ambulance service, funded by taxpayers and patients. Others contract with a private, for-profit company. Some use a mix of both to cover 911 calls.

One of many communities grappling with the best way forward is Cohoes, where a tense debate is taking shape. The city’s longstanding agreement with a private provider ended earlier this year.

The city’s fire department union is pushing to run the ambulance service and add more ambulances (one ambulance is offered in the interim by the private provider). The mayor is in favor of letting the private company run it with one ambulance.

For decades, Cohoes budgeted nothing for EMS. private company Empire provided service for free.

In January, Ambulnz took over Empire’s license and sent the city a bill for $50,000 for a month-to-month interim contract with one dedicated ambulance to respond to 911 calls.

13 Investigates sat down with Mayor Bill Keeler for an in-depth conversation about the city’s position on EMS.

“Historically, we’ve spent nothing on our EMS but we’ll be spending at a minimum $600,000 a year,” Keeler said.  

If the company takes over permanently, Keeler says the city will pay for it using pandemic rescue money this year. Next year, he estimates residents could be looking at a 12 to 14% tax increase if the city doesn’t come up with the money from somewhere else. Keeler is intent on not raising taxes, he said, but warns the increase could be even higher if the city decides on a more expensive bid than Ambulnz.

Several public and private EMS are bidding to take over service in Cohoes. On Thursday, 13 Investigates obtained a letter from Mohawk, the area’s largest private provider, saying it would pull its bid due to “disparaging” comments from the Cohoes fire chief about the company.

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Fire Chief Joseph Fahd is pleased with the EMS Ambulnz is providing. He described old provider Empire’s service as “shoddy at best.” He said Ambulnz provides more consistent service. The fire department could not provide data to compare response times.

But Cohoes’ fire union is ramping up a campaign to take over ambulance service. Uniform Firefighters of Cohoes President Rob Wattsman believes the city should never have been in this position—and would never be—if it ran its own ambulance service.

Cohoes firefighters are all trained EMTs who already provide basic life support on EMS calls. They would need to be trained in advanced life support in order to run the service.

“So I think this is a perfect opportunity for the City of Cohoes to invest in the fire department, let us give a better service to our residents, because we’re already responding to the calls,” Wattsman said.

How much it would cost is up for debate. Neither the city nor the union could provide 13 Investigates with the estimated annual carrying cost after the service starts.

Keeler estimates it would cost $1.2 million to start up a city-run ambulance—double what it will cost for Ambulnz this year. Keeler, who is himself a retired state police major, said the city would need to hire around 20 additional firefighters.

“It just seems to me it would be much cheaper to hire somebody off the street, an EMT, a paramedic, than to hire a firefighter and all the benefits that go along with that and all the time off, which is a significant problem, they get a lot of time off,” Keeler said.

But Wattsman believes the department could get two used ambulances and start the service for closer to $300,000. 

Wattsman views the City of Amsterdam as comparable in size and spending.

In 2022, Amsterdam made an average of $625,000 in revenue per year from its public ambulance service to offset some $3 million of its fire department budget.

Wattsman estimated Cohoes could generate about $250,000 in its first year.

He said it should be about investing in the department and letting him and his fellow firefighters serve the community they care about. He strongly believes the city needs more than one ambulance to respond to 911 calls. When you’re dealing with people’s lives, he told 13 Investigates, it shouldn’t be about paying the least amount.

“You’re not going to make money running an ambulance. The for-profit companies do because that’s what they’re there for. They’re there to make money,” he said.

“The fire union is viewing things through their own prism, they want a bigger department, they want more money, and good for them, unions, that’s what they should be looking at from a union perspective, but I’m looking at it from a public safety perspective of how do we provide the best EMS service to the residents of Cohoes,” Keeler said.

13 Investigates asked whether Keeler believes taxpayers would be willing to spend more money to get a city-run service.

“I think that the taxpayers are going to be paying more no matter what,” Keeler said, adding that he is keeping an open mind as the city will soon look at the best long-term solution.

“I assure the people of Cohoes that we are on it,” he said.

The city council will decide on a budget for EMS at their next meeting on April 25. The city is also hiring an auditor to make a recommendation on the best long-term solution. The findings are expected in May. 

Ambulnz sent 13 Investigates a statement saying in part “Ambulnz has increased ambulance resource availability over the previous system.” The company added, “Ambulnz hired many of the employees affected by the closure of the previous ambulance service and has stationed these employees in the City of Cohoes because of their valuable prior working knowledge of the community and its emergency system.”

Cohoes is far from the only community in the state debating the best way forward with EMS. Over the coming days, 13 Investigates is also looking into why EMS is not considered essential in New York State.

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13 Investigates began looking into issues with EMS earlier this year.

In Troy, a fire that devastated one man’s apartment building became a discussion about funding and staffing in the city’s fire department, which operates the city’s public ambulance service.

Rick Ferris told Troy City Council how he escaped the fire but got stuck waiting in the freezing cold for another agency to take him to the hospital as Troy firefighters were busy battling the fire.  

“I have to wait, naked, sitting on a cast iron chair for another fire company to come, or another ambulance to come to come from another town. That’s disgusting,” he said.

Ferris was eventually taken to Westchester for care. He is continuing to recover.