Rescue squad grows, moves

SARANAC LAKE – The Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad is moving, but it’s not going far.

Later this month, the local ambulance service will relocate its operations from the village firehouse to the former Currier Press building next door at 110 Broadway. The project was approved Tuesday by the village planning board.

The move will provide more space for the squad’s growing roster of employees and its expanding fleet of vehicles, growth that’s been triggered largely by an increase in the number of hospital-to-hospital transfers the service now provides.

“As we’ve grown with the transport business, the space in the firehouse is just not big enough,” said SLVRS President Julie Harjung. “The fire department needs more space because they’re going to be getting the floor fixed and bringing (the department’s aerial ladder truck) back inside. We have four trucks and they could only fit three to begin with.”

To accommodate the squad’s ambulances, Harjung said a garage door will be put on the back of the Currier Press building, a concrete block structure below the road that most recently housed Spencer Boatworks. The service already rents two apartments in the street-level section of the building for overnight staffing. The building is owned by P.J. Hyde and Sons Inc.

“It’s got a nice size office that’s going to be phenomenal, and another space we’ll make into a meeting room or day room or use for training,” Harjung said. “It’s not the perfect building, but it certainly gives us the expansion that we need at this point.”

Staying close to the firehouse is also important, Harjung said, as the squad will continue to use village fire drivers to answer 911 calls in the six towns (Harrietstown, North Elba, St. Armand, Brighton, Franklin, Santa Clara) and one village (Saranac Lake) it covers. The squad has its own driver and crew for hospital-to-hospital transports.

“We’re still using the village drivers and contributing to their salary through the help the towns give us,” Harjung said. “We’re going to continue to do that, which is one of the reasons why the building right next door was so perfect.”

The relocation of the rescue squad’s headquarters comes four years after it split from the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department and became an independent corporation, although it has continued to occupy the firehouse. The split allowed the squad to bill patients’ insurance companies for ambulance services, which it couldn’t do if it was still part of the fire department, and hire its own employees, particularly an emergency medical technician to provide daytime coverage when the service’s volunteers are often at work.

The rescue squad had one employee when it broke off from the fire department. Now it has a dozen employees, which includes several per diem staff, Harjung said.

“It’s grown quite a bit,” she said. “The transport business is what’s precipitated a lot of that.”

Daytime coverage for 911 calls is no longer an issue, Harjung added.

“In the past, it took way too long to get somebody to answer those calls,” she said. “Now, they’re out the door before the page is done. In terms of our response time, it’s exceptional right now.”

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the rescue squad’s transport contract with Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. Harjung said her squad handles about 90 percent of the transports from the local hospital to other hospitals in the region, primarily Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh and Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vermont. It also handles transfers of psychiatric patients to facilities like the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg.

Dr. John Broderick, Adirondack Health’s chief medical officer, said having the local rescue squad handle so many of these transports has been a benefit for the hospital.

“It’s worked out great,” he said. “They’ve been very responsive, and it allows us to work hand in glove with an agency right down the street that also provides 911 service to the community, so it’s kind of a win-win for both.”

Financially, the transport business “has helped the 911 squad significantly,” Harjung said.

“We just bought an ambulance and we paid for it in cash, which we never have been able to do before,” she said. “And we’ve been able to get those power cot stretchers that lift the patient mechanically. They cost $13,000. We just bought our second one. That kind of thing we wouldn’t be doing if we were only doing billing and the contracts with the towns.”

While it’s added employees, the backbone of the rescue squad continues to be its roster of roughly 20 volunteers, including basic, intermediate and critical care EMTs, and paramedics.

“We still have a significant amount of volunteers that overlap (with the fire department), but we are starting to get some folks in that are rescue only,” Harjung said. “We’re losing a few here and there, but we’re also gaining a few. Our numbers are pretty steady. We can always use more. There’s a lot of folks getting older.”

The rescue squad plans to put on a series of CPR and first-aid classes for the community in the next few months. Harjung said the classes will be targeted for youth sports coaches, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts leaders and lifeguards. There will be a charge for the classes, but the amounts haven’t been determined yet.

“We’re going to cover our costs, but we’re going to do it as a community service,” she said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.