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EMTs

The Port Jefferson EMS team has been on the front lines of the pandemic since its start. The team covers the Mount Sinai, Port Jeff and Belle Terre communities. Photo from Michael Buckley

By Iryna Shkurhan

The work of first responders is indispensable to communities across the country, but during an exhausting year like 2020, it was even more so. They are the first on the scene of emergencies, and time and again put their lives at risk when they respond to all types of 911 calls. With COVID-19, it meant untold hours of difficulty and hardship, but their work helped secure the safety of thousands.

So, this year gave EMTs, paramedics and firefighters the added challenge of directly responding to the invisible killer, COVID-19, as the pandemic took on communities across Long Island, all while still responding to their usual fires and non-COVID related medical emergencies. Leaders and service members, some paid but mostly volunteers, weathered changes such as increased safety precautions and the rising demand for their assistance. 

Wading River Fire Department, made up of about 80 volunteer members, responds to over 1,000 calls every year. When asked if one person stood out this year for their work, Chief Branden Heller agreed that their whole department demonstrated above and beyond work.

“We say the entire department because of all the events that transpired this year,” he said. “Members exposed themselves to more hazardous situations then they were normally used to. Overall, it’s been a very busy year.”

This year his crew of fire and EMS volunteers as well as two paid paramedics overcame a PPE shortage and also dealt with a rise of brush fires, on top of a surge of COVID cases, as emergency calls spiked up in the spring.

Daniel Dongvort, third assistant chief of Smithtown Fire Department, lauded Ann Shumacher, a lieutenant and volunteer EMT for her contributions this year, and throughout her 15-year tenure. She is a mother and full-time nurse, working two jobs, who still found time and energy to devote countless hours to the department whenever she could. 

“She was nonstop helping riding ambulances and helping the community all throughout 2020, but what she’s done over her tenure is probably more telling of her personality and her dedication,” Dongvort said. “Her overall enthusiasm, passion and willingness to come out for the next call, time and time again, is something that’s contagious, especially to the younger members.”

Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, far right, leads a team of volunteers during the department’s 10th annual Stuff a Bus event Nov. 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

Rocky Point Fire Department, with over 130 active members, serves the Rocky Point and Shoreham communities. Volunteer members in the department respond to thousands of EMS and fire calls every year. The department’s David Singer was named an EMS firefighter of the year by Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) in October. 

This isn’t the first time that Singer has been honored for his service to the community. 

As a member of the fire department for over 18 years, he has received his fire company’s Number One Responder Award and the Captain’s Award. 

Roselyn Coleman, an EMT for Riverhead Fire Department and volunteer for Miller Place Fire Department was nominated by Larry Fischer, fire commissioner and a retired EMS. “She’s one of our best,” Fischer said. Coleman has devoted her time to the community this year and showed consistent dedication by splitting her time between both departments.

Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Corps provides emergency medical services and EMS protection to thousands of Long Islanders at all hours of the day. During the height of COVID, volunteers at Port Jeff EMS were working close to 180 hours in a two-week period. Many of the volunteers are students at Stony Brook University, who balance their EMT duties with their academic responsibilities. Nestor Kissoon and Adam Jones are two student-volunteer EMTs who were enrolled in SBU this year. 

“They did not shy away at all through the pandemic, and increased their hours to help meet the needs of the patients and the community,” said Virginia Ledford, administrative director of Port Jeff EMS. “They went beyond what was asked of them this year, and both always maintain a positive attitude.” 

Two full-time paramedics — Rob Stoessel, chief and executive director, and Mike Presta, deputy chief — worked tirelessly this year for their department. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, they stayed at the building for what felt like weeks to make sure everyone was safe, prepared and that  the needs of the community were being met,” Ledford said. 

Miller Place EMS Capt. Rob Chmiel, far right, leads a team of volunteers during the department’s 10th annual Stuff a Bus event Nov. 20. Photo by Kyle Barr

John Quimby, chief of Mount Sinai Fire Department, was commended by his first assistant chief, Randy Nelson. Quimby’s first year as chief came at the same time as COVID, and such a time required making tough but necessary decisions to prioritize the safety of his team. This year was especially difficult for the department after a few members passed away.

“Ensuring that in everything that we do, the members’ safety and health has always been paramount in all the decisions that he’s made,” Nelson said of the chief. 

Quimby made the decision to halt volunteer training in April, which Nelson said was crucial to the department, especially to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The chief also made the decision to conduct all meetings virtually. 

“It makes me feel a lot better about the work that we do, and a lot more comfortable given the situation,” Nelson said. “It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in, but his decision-making through it all has certainly made it a bit easier to accept.” 

Stony Brook Fire Department Chief Pete Leonard was also named an EMS firefighter of the year, this time by county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) for her legislative district. Leonard has dedicated his time and energy to the fire department for over 35 years and has been a crucial asset to the Stony Brook community, this year especially.

In addition to his duties as chief, he also works as a full-time paramedic with Stony Brook University Hospital, where he is the first to provide care for critically ill patients being transported to hospitals. He continued to work throughout the pandemic as his department received a massive 10% in calls in the spring. 

Leonard described managing both responsibilities as “a delicate balancing act” where he worried about his health and safety on the job as a paramedic, and then came home worrying about the safety of his 75-member department.  

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them,” he said. “And there isn’t a thing there they wouldn’t do for their community. Between our volunteer and paid staff, they have been exemplary and beyond words.”

He also described the cooperative relationship between all the fire departments on Long Island as they endured shortages of PPE. If one department was low on supplies, another department would chip in to offer theirs. They reached out to other departments to help out whenever necessary and, because of their cooperation, no department has had to go without PPE this year.

“It was a very cooperative relationship, and really showed the true spirit of what it is to work in this industry, and work together,” Leonard said. 

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Some of the staff members who took the EMT course were recognized by the board at the Aug. 22 BOE meeting. Photo from the Three Village Central School District

By Andrea Paldy

Three Village school district officials devoted a large segment of their second meeting of the new school year to addressing security infrastructure, training and protocols.

Jack Blaum. File photo by Andrea Paldy

Jack Blaum, district security coordinator and chief emergency officer, used the Sept. 5 meeting to review procedures and highlight enhancements for the year ahead. The school district now has 11 new emergency management technicians on staff, he said. These are district employees — among them Jeff Carlson, assistant superintendent for business services — who trained with the Suffolk County Office of Emergency Management in the spring.

Three Village is the first K-12 school district in the state to run and graduate students from an EMT course, Blaum said. Having EMTs on staff means school nurses have a support system and additional resources, he said.

During a phone interview, Carlson said it is as important to have personnel trained in “everyday” needs such as CPR and bleed control as it is to be trained in protocol for an active shooter.

“The more people that know CPR, the better for all of us,” he said, adding that having first responders on site could improve recovery time and even chances of survival.

The 200-hour course included hefty reading assignments, homework and weekly tests, in addition to practical instruction in CPR, splinting, patient assessment and transport with other skills required of an EMT, Carlson said. Participants completed hospital and ambulance rotations. To receive certification, they took two New York State exams — one written and one practical — to demonstrate their skills.

The school district plans to offer more EMT courses, Blaum said, adding that he hopes with funding from the county and state, the district could eventually be its own first-responder agency.

Also new to the district’s arsenal of security procedures is an enhanced ID scanner in building entrance vestibules. The district has locked all
entrances to schools during school hours since the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. The default lockout system currently in place ensures that visitors enter the building only after scanning an ID and being buzzed through two doors.

New scanner software cross-references the Megan’s Law sex offender database and allows the district administration to add pertinent information to flag individuals who should not enter buildings.

“The more people that know CPR, the better for all of us.”

— Jeff Carlson

These safeguards are in addition to other “target hardening strategies” already in place, such as bullet-resistant film, lockdown drills and interior doors that are lockable with a single key so that a staff member can secure any classroom door from the inside in case of an emergency. Additionally, each building has a hidden “panic system” and an automated lockdown alert system.

Blaum said security guards at each school are either active or retired law enforcement officers. Along with vehicle patrols and interior and exterior camera surveillance, the district works closely with the Setauket and Stony Brook fire departments and has direct lines to the Suffolk County Police Department’s 6th Precinct. There is also district staff trained in bleeding control, lockdown and active shooter options, improvised explosive recognition and planning for bombing incidents, Blaum said.

“Mental well-being is the key to all of this,” he said, explaining that the district’s measures to increase guidance- and mental-health staff can help ensure the well-being of staff and students and assist in keeping the community safe. Even so, Blaum said he and his team remain vigilant and work with administrators, psychologists, social workers and the school resource officer to assess threats.

Though these protocols and infrastructure are in place, Blaum said national events compel him to always look for ways to improve security in the school district. Future enhancements could include upgrades to automated classroom door locks that activate all locks at once, ID scanning to let staff open interior doors with ID badges, and perimeter gates at the high school.

The district will host a safety and security community forum at R.C. Murphy Junior High School, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m.

North Shore natives travel to Washington with hopes of swaying lawmakers to renew health care benefits

John Feal speaks at the September 11 memorial ceremony in Commack last week. Photo by Brenda Lentsch

The 9/11 first responders who have fought for years to get health care support are heading back to Washington, D.C., in hopes of ushering in the renewal of the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act. And for one Nesconset resident, change cannot come soon enough.

Parts of the bill will expire next month, and other parts in October 2016.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act would extend the programs of the original Zadroga act indefinitely. It was introduced to Congress in April and currently has 150 bipartisan co-sponsors.

“When this bill expires, our illnesses do not expire,” said John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, in a phone interview. Feal, of Nesconset, has been walking the halls of Congress for the past eight years to help get this bill passed.

He is also a 9/11 first responder who worked on the reconstruction at Ground Zero, and lost half of his foot in the process. He suffered from gangrene, but he says his injuries “pale in comparison to other first responders.”

President Barack Obama signed the current Zadroga act into law in 2011 and established the World Trade Center Health Program, which will expire in October if not renewed.

The WTC program ensured that those whose health was affected by 9/11 would receive monitoring and treatment services for their health-related problems. It consists of a responder program for rescue and recovery workers and New York City firefighters, and a survivor program for those who lived, worked or went to school in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Zadroga act also reopened the September 11th Victims Compensation Act, which allows for anyone affected to file claims for economic losses due to physical harm or death caused by 9/11. That will expire in October of next year.

Feal said he was asked by television personality Jon Stewart to come on “The Daily Show” in December 2010, but the Nesconset native said he did not want to leave the real legislative fight in D.C. Instead, he helped get four 9/11 responders to the Dec. 16, 2010, episode, who helped shed light on the ongoing battle these responders were dealing with in Congress.

“He was definitely one of the reasons the bill got passed,” Feal said of Stewart. Stewart accompanied Feal and many other first responders when they traveled to Washington, D.C, on Wednesday, Sept. 16, and took part in a mini rally.

The bill did not pass the first time it was presented to Congress back in 2006. A new version was drafted in 2010 and passed in the House of Representatives, but was having trouble getting through the Senate due to a Republican filibuster. The bill received final congressional approval on Dec. 22, 2010, and was enacted by the president on Jan. 2, 2011.

“As we get older these illnesses will become debilitating,” Feal said. “Not extending this bill is criminal. People will die without it. It’s a life-saving piece of legislation.”

Jennifer McNamara, a Blue Point resident and president of The Johnny Mac Foundation, is also actively involved in the fight to keep responders health costs covered. Her late husband, John McNamara, passed away in 2009 from stage IV colon cancer.

He was a New York City Firefighter and worked more than 500 hours at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11. He worked with responders to get support for the Zadroga bill before he died.

“I made him a promise to continue to lend support to get this legislation passed,” Jennifer McNamara said in a phone interview. When her husband passed away, she said there weren’t as many responders getting sick as there are now. “People are dying more quickly, and more are getting diagnosed with cancers and other illnesses.”

The two big issues that McNamara said she feels need to continue to be addressed are monitoring these diseases and coverage of costs once someone is diagnosed. McNamara said she believes that if there were better monitoring programs earlier on, her husband could’ve been diagnosed before his cancer was stage IV, and he could’ve had a better chance.

“These people did tremendous things for their country,” McNamara said. “They shouldn’t have to guess about whether they are going to be taken care of.”