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Hillsborough Drops Local Rescue Squad, Signs 5-Year Contract with RWJ Health Network

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More than 100 residents attended Tuesday night's Township Committee meeting in Hillsborough which ended with the township awarding a contract for emergency health services to the RWJ Health Network. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - The Township Committee Tuesday night ended its longstanding relationship with the Hillsborough Emergency Medical Services Corporation and voted to outsource its Emergency Medical Services to the Robert Wood Johnson Health Network - much to the dismay of an angry crowd that had come out to support HEMS, which has provided first aid and ambulance service here for over 50 years.

More than 20 people stood in single file to await their turn at the microphone, taking turns imploring the committee to delay; others suggested a referendum which would allow township residents to vote and make the final decision. Others offered anecdotes about HEMS personnel saving their lives or the lives of loved ones and their quick response to emergency calls.

Those commenting included Jane Staats and Harrison Burke, both Democratic candidates for Township Committee in November’s election, as well as first responders from neighboring towns that were critical of RWJ Health Network and supportive of the mutual aid assistance provided by HEMS over the years, including Fred Picchiello, an EMT and chief of the Somerville Rescue Squad and and Steve Weinman, who heads Somerville’s Office of Emergency Management.

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David Gwin, chief of HEMS attended the meeting but did not offer any public comments; afterwards, he said:  "On the advice of our attorney, we have no comment because of anticipated litigation."

A phone message was left with attorney Corrine McCann Trainor but the call was not returned.

Mayor Carl Suraci, Deputy Mayor Gloria McCauley, Committeeman Frank DelCore and Committeeman Doug Tomson all voted to approve the five-year contract with RWJ Health Network; Committeeman Greg Burchette was did not attend the meeting and was recused from voting because of a potential conflict of interest – his business, Bridgewater Motorworks, has a contract with RWJ Health Network to service its ambulances.

The township can re-visit the contract after two years, according to the agreement.

“After thoughtful evaluation and deliberation, we are proceeding with the consideration of a contract award to Robert Wood Johnson Mobile Health Service, the only bidder in the process, to provide basic life support (BLS) service for the Township,” said Mayor Carl Suraci.

Last December, the Township Committee advertised for proposals to operate and maintain emergency medical services for the municipality, a job the Hillsborough Rescue Squad and HEMS has done for over 50 years; last year it answered 3,500 calls in the sprawling township, which covers 54.5 square miles.

The only bid received was from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s Emergency Medical Services, which also provides EMS services in Bound Brook, South Bound Brook, Manville, Green Brook, Franklin, Bridgewater and other towns.

HEMS did not submit a bid, unable to satisfy a requirement that specified the need for a call center staffed by certified emergency medical dispatchers, according to Gwin.

The Request for Proposals was prompted by a 2014 assessment of the growing township’s emergency preparedness conducted by Fitch and Associates - a consultant that provides management services for Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s EMS mobile health service.

The Fitch report concluded the status quo was unsustainable and recommended outsourcing as an option.

HEMS and RWJ Emergency Medical Services are both private contractors.

Hillsborough Township has contributed $300,000 to HEMS annually. The township owns the seven ambulances and other equipment operated by the HEMS, headquartered on East Mountain Road in a building owned by the Hillsborough Rescue Squad.  HEMS Paid Crew works the 6 a.m.-6 p.m. shift, with volunteers working the 12-hour night shift. The squad is compensated by insurance carriers or the individuals requesting their services.

The RWJ Health Network service will be paid similarly.

Township officials had voiced concerns as to whether HEMS squad could sustain its membership and whether it couldafford the cost to recruit and adequately train new members.

Suraci also emphasized the committee had continuing concerns about the financial viability of HEMS, which he said is $700,000 in debt.

Prior to his vote at Tuesday night’s meeting, Tomson said he had sat down with Gwin and HEMS board members a few weeks ago and asked several specific questions about the organization’s finances but did not get any satisfactory answers.

Leading up to the vote were heated exchanges about response time, quality of care, the dedication of the EMTs providing emergency medical treatment, the availability of ambulances and their location within the 54.5-mile square township.

Delcore said two RWJ ambulances and crews will be based in the eastern and western portions of the township on a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week basis, but specific locations have yet to be identified.

"There's certainly an emotional component to this," DelCore said, “but we've gone through an exhaustive process over the past three years. The implication that we've put the health of your family and ours in danger to save a few bucks is simply not true."

DelCore is the township committee’s Emergency Services Liaison.

Tuesday night’s vote means the township will save $300,000 annually.

The vote triggers a two-month period that will allow HEMS to work with RWJ on a transition, at the end of which time RWJ will take over emergency medical services in the township.

RWJ has also told Hillsborough it will need to hire 16 EMTs, with many of those positions expected to be filled by EMTs now working for HEMS.

During and after the transition, extrication, if necessary will be handled by trained members of the Hillsborough volunteer fire companies. Water rescue will also be performed by the fire companies where necessary.

“Hillsborough Township and RWJ look forward to re-establishing and supporting a true volunteer EMS squad,” Suraci said.

"I wish HEMs had put in a bid," Suraci added. "It would've been nice to have had a choice. As committeeman Doug Tomson said, this is about mismanagement. We have no issues with the services provided by HEMS."

The Township has worked with RWJ to ensure that there will not be any degradation in the level of services expected in the Township, according to Suraci.

The future of the all-volunteer rescue squad, which works as an adjunct to the HEMS and which has served the township since 1955, is unknown.

The Committee would like to revitalize the township's all-volunteer emergency unit, DelCore said, which would act as an adjunct to the RWJ Health Network.

"I wish HEMs had put in a bid," said Suraci. "It would've been nice to have had a choice. As committeeman Doug Tomson said, this is about mismanagement. We have no issues with the services provided by HEMS."

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