BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – At the June 25 meeting of the council, Joe Savino, president of the Berkeley Heights Volunteer Rescue Squad (BHVRS), asked members to support a Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP) for squad members. To be eligible for the LOSAP award, members would need to meet very strict criteria.
Savino called the LOSAP program, “long overdue … of the 21 municipalities in Union County, Berkeley Heights is the only one that uses all volunteer EMS and Fire Services that does not have the LOSAP benefits.” Not only that, “but all our neighbors” have LOSAP programs, even those in different counties.
Savino told the council the squad is having problems attracting new members, and “the membership problem is not going away, it is expected to increase.” Nationally, numbers are down at all types of service organizations and clubs, in part because of changing demographics.
In Berkeley Heights, often both parents work, many in New York City, which limits their availability. The town is growing, which will increase the squad’s call volume, especially with the addition of a number of age-restricted housing units coming to town, he said. The volunteers all have the same skills, certifications and training as the professionals working for private agencies, but they don’t get paid for their services.
Currently the squad has 18 regular members, but there should be 26 regular members for a town the size of Berkeley Heights. The hope is the LOSAP award program will serve as an incentive for people to join, said Savino.
He told the council the alternative to the all-volunteer squad would be to use the Union County ambulance service. Were the county service to bill residents personally for their service the cost would be substantial, he said.
Union County Director of Public Safety Andrew Moran said on Monday that since the inception of the County Emergency Services program in 2011, the practice has been if the patient being transported is a “county resident, we accept insurance payments as payment in full.” Not only that, but “if the patient has no insurance, they are not obligated to pay the bill ... We have never received a billing complaint,” he said.
The BHVRS responded to 780 calls last year for free. If the Union County Ambulance Squad had responded to each of those calls, they could have billed as much as $702,000, using their standard rate of $850 plus 20 cents a mile for each response. That's the value of the service provided by the BHVRS volunteers.
And, even with an active volunteer squad in Berkeley Heights, in 2018 Union County EMS responded to 166 calls in Berkeley Heights alone, This year they have already responded to 95 calls.
As for the volunteer squads, they “play an essential part of providing pre-hospital medical care,” Moran said. The county “has a very good working relationship with Berkeley Heights,” he said. On the few days a year when the BHVRS doesn’t have a crew, the county EMS puts a rig in Berkeley Heights, he said.
Before making his presentation, Savino handed out detailed information on the LOSAP program to the council, including a one-page summary for the discussion of the program, a complete cost analysis, a sample resolution and a statement from the state.
Once they had the information, he made his pitch. Savino told the council, “Both the Rescue Squad and FD have a substantial problem attracting and retaining qualified members who are willing and able to put in the substantial time commitment for the training necessary to join our organizations.”
He reminded members the LOSAP program is not the same as the incentive and retention program proposed by the Fire Department earlier this year, but they are not “competing” programs. Fire Department officers proposed the council approve both a LOSAP and a stipend program for the department.
How Does LOSAP Work
LOSAP, which has been around since January 1998, provides tax-deferred income benefits for members of the EMS (or Fire Department), provided they meet a series of strict requirements, each of which carries a point value. There is a minimum number of credits which would qualify a volunteer for the annual LOSAP contribution by the town. The payment would be $1,150 per year for each member who meets all the criteria, Savino said.
Those criteria could include such items as: serving a minimum of 720 hours a year on squad duty; being an officer or trustee; attending meetings and training sessions; being a committee chairperson; working extra shifts; being on standby during emergencies; doing community service or taking part in drills; teaching EMS courses, and responding to a call for extra members. Each category is weighted and has a maximum number of credits a volunteer could earn.
As for what it would cost the town to provide LOSAP for qualified squad members, Savino said he calculated the first year would cost the most, since eight volunteers would be eligible for the benefit in 2018 and 10 volunteers would be eligible in 2019. The cost for Year 1 would be $33,350, or $7.26 per household; Year 2 would cost the town $16,199 or $3.50 per household. The estimated cost then moves between a maximum of $5.01 per household to a low of $3.19 in the next eight years.
Councilman Peter Bavoso asked whether the squad had an “attraction or retention,” problem.
Savino said whatever the problem, “the more we can offer a prospective volunteer” the more likely they will be able to retain them. The new developments coming online means there will be more demand on the squad. “We have fewer members doing a lot more,” he said.
Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley asked if the LOSAP program has solved the retention program in the other towns. She suggested he return with information on whether it helped.
Kingsley also said if voters were asked to approve LOSAP for the squad, they should be asked to do so for the fire department at the same time, since it makes little sense to go to the voters twice with the same question.
President of the Berkeley Heights Volunteer Fire Department Adam Uanis said the department had added LOSAP to their proposal as a “package benefit” but, if there was a choice, “the stipend plan in any form we feel would be much more effective than LOSAP.”
The difference between the two groups seem to be the age of the members, Savino said, “I think LOSAP for us, at this stage of our membership, would be effective. Whereas his (fire department) membership is much younger than ours.”
There is a deadline to consider – if the town wants to offer this benefit to the two departments next year, the referendum should be included on the November ballot.
The timing is important – if the council doesn’t introduce the ordinance at its next meeting, July 9, so there can be a public hearing during the July 23 meeting, there will be no chance for the question to be on the November ballot.
Savino said whether the fire department wants to have a LOSAP program for its members of not, “we’re moving forward on this. We would like them to join us, but we’ve been so many years behind on this on getting this done, I just want all of us to be conscious that we want to push this forward, with or without their participation.”
Correction: A statment about the billing practices of the Union County Emergency Services in the original version of this story was inaccurate. The County EMS unit does not bill Union County residents for its service, nor does it bill uninsured individuals. It does bill insurance companies for transporting a patient, but accepts whatever they pay as payment in full.