ROSELLE PARK, NJ — The borough of Roselle Park has dissolved its volunteer first aid squad, effective Aug. 1.
After three closed sessions at the July 20 council meeting, members voted 4-2 in favor of terminating the borough’s contract with the Roselle Park First Aid Squad.
To replace the RPFAS, council members passed a resolution to hand over full-time emergency medical coverage to the county, including the use of the borough building, and the transfer of emergency medical apparatus.
Resolution 216-17, adopted at the July 20 meeting of the council, amends a shared service agreement for emergency medical services between the county and the borough, effective through July 31, 2022.
The agreement calls for the county to provide the borough with emergency medical services coverage 24/7, including coverage for special events as necessary. The shared service agreement also permits the county’s use of the borough-owned building and property located at 535 Laurel Ave. in Roselle Park.
In a statement made at the July 20 council meeting by Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson and borough council members, the decision was cited as an issue of both public safety and legal liability to the borough.
“The seriousness of this matter is such that it presents itself as an imminent public safety concern and legal liability,” the statement read.
While the council expressed its gratitude to the 27-member volunteer squad for saving “countless thousands of dollars and, most importantly, lives,” and notes that the squad “has historically provided civic-minded residents with a way to get involved in their community,” it also stated that service to the community has seen a marked decline in recent years, thus putting borough residents in harm’s way.
“Over the past several years, there has been a marked change in both the quantity and quality of response by the squad, especially in emergent situations,” the statement read. “This conclusion has been reached by the borough through extensive objective research and analysis of the squad’s responsiveness.”
According to the statement, the borough entered into an agreement with the county in August 2015, for weekday daytime coverage when it became apparent that the RPFAS was “generally incapable” of handling calls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The 2015 agreement called for the RPFAS to be on call Monday through Friday, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and 24 hours a day on both Saturday and Sunday, according to documents obtained by LocalSource. Union County was to be on call Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Prior to that, the RPFAS was on call full time.
“It was understood and explicitly stated that this was due to work conflicts with Squad members, and a drop in volunteerism,” read the statement. “It was never and is still not construed to represent an unwillingness to serve the community. Within the last year, concerns reached an all-time high when a high percentage of calls were being answered by the County and other agencies during times when the Squad was assigned as the primary basic life support service for the Borough. It became even more troubling when the Fire Department had to assist with emergency calls because the Squad was unable to do so.”
Prior to the council’s vote at the July 20 meeting, several emergency responders and RPFAS members spoke up in support of saving the RPFAS, including former squad member Jeff Regan, who spoke of the times the RPFAS came to his home in emergency situations and lauded both the response time and skill of the responding crew.
“I got the treatment that I needed,” Regan said at the meeting. “I don’t want to see this wonderful 75-year institution disappear, and I hope that we can do something to save it.”
His son, Josh Regan, a current member of the RPFAS, said the emergency squad was the “very fabric of what makes a community a community,” noting the many days that volunteers give of their time to respond to emergency calls, as well as teaching first aid to Boy and Girl Scouts, helping Scouts with their service projects and volunteering at events.
“Getting rid of the first aid squad is just like spitting in the face of your community,” Josh Regan said at the meeting.
Cheyenne Hill, a Union resident who is a member of the RPFAS said that community members, especially kids, recognize squad members and that RPFAS are familiar and comforting faces in emergency situations.
“We really care for our town,” Hill said at the July 20 meeting. “I would really hate to see this go.”
As a case study, the months of April, May, and June were analyzed by both the county and borough; LocalSource has obtained this analysis and documentation. The analysis indicates an overall response rate for squad-assigned weekday hours and weekends of 43 to 53 percent.
Weekends reviewed during the same time period shows a response rate ranging from a low of 14 percent to a high of 38 percent of calls answered.
According to the council’s statement, “When reviewing records for all of 2017, it was found that the squad was dispatched a total of 607 times as of July 9, 2017. Of the 607 dispatches, the squad responded to 291 calls, a total of only 47.9 percent. To be clear, in no way is this presented to speak ill of the intent, wishes, or passion of squad members. However, when it comes to public safety even the best intentions, if not executed in a proper and timely manner can and will end in life or death.”
According to Roselle Park Councilwoman Charlene Storey, who voted to dissolve the squad, some squad members dispute the county’s statistics.
“Some squad members have said those figures are wrong, Storey said in a July 26 email. “But the county puts its statistics together from the data initially submitted to it by the first aid squad and other services. The first aid squad receives copies of these county reports every month; squad officials have never complained that they are wrong. If the squad has records of calls that it hasn’t submitted to the county, why hasn’t it done so? It is a legal requirement that this information be submitted.”
“I voted with the majority,” Storey said. “It wasn’t a pleasant choice, but it was the only responsible decision we could make to ensure public safety. The bottom line is that the first aid squad isn’t big enough to handle the job any longer,” she said. “It’s not that the individual volunteers have changed. They’re as dedicated, community-minded and heroic as ever — but there just aren’t enough of them today to do the job.”
Second Ward Councilman Joseph Petrosky voted against the measure.
“I was against it for the simple reason that they’re volunteers,” Petrosky told LocalSource in a recent phone interview. “Why get rid of volunteers?”
Although there were problems with the RPFAS, said Petrosky, he said less drastic measures could have been taken.
“I felt it was a rushed deal,” he said. “There are a lot of young people on the squad and they came to speak at the meeting. I just felt like we could have done things differently. I would have sat them down and said, ‘Look, we have to get better.’ I just felt there was a better way of going about it. To see the first aid squad go down — it made me very upset.”
Hokanson told LocalSource in a recent phone interview that the decision made by the council puts residents first.
“I’m not going to please everybody and I’m not going to change their minds,” Hokanson said, noting that the problems surrounding the RPFAS were first brought to his attention three years ago by the borough’s police chief. “I put people’s lives before votes. My stance as council member, then as mayor, has always been that lives come first.”
The mayor noted that volunteerism is down and emergency calls were not being answered.
“The facts and figures speak for themselves,” he said. “It’s a very touchy situation but now it’s turned political. I support the four people that voted for this,” Hokanson said, noting that both the police and fire chiefs support the move.
Andrew Moran, director of Union County Public Safety, confirmed the billing arrangement between the borough and the Union County Emergency Medical Services in a July 26 letter to Hokanson that was provided to LocalSource.
“Recently the County of Union and the Borough of Roselle Park entered into an agreement, authorizing Union County Emergency Medical Services to provide the Borough’s primary ambulance response services, at no cost to the municipality or its residents,” Moran said. “Union County Emergency Medical Services does not directly bill residents for any ambulance services.”
According to the letter, the UCEMS never bills any resident for services rendered.
“The County does not expect residents to pay any out-of-pocket costs, neither when insurance does not cover the full amount of services rendered nor if a resident is uninsured,” reads the letter. “Payment is only sought from a resident’s insurance provider. The County does not bill insurance providers if we do not transport a patient; we do not bill for assessments, refusals or cancellations. The County has provided ambulance services to County residents since 2011 and has always maintained this policy.”
Roselle Park Police Chief Paul Morrison told LocalSource that although he has the utmost respect for 77 years of service from the RPFAS, the dissolution of the squad was necessary.
“How can anyone be critical of something that makes emergency services better for the public?” Morrison asked in a recent phone interview.
Storey noted that the mayor and council are elected to look at the facts and make decisions based on those facts.
“I’m proud that the majority of council had the courage to act responsibly to protect our borough,” she said. “This is certainly an emotional issue. The first aid squad did a wonderful job for the community for many, many years. But what worked so well 75 years ago — or 50, or even 15 — doesn’t work well today.”
Calls to the RPFAS LocalSource went unreturned as of press time.