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Shrinking N.J. Town Can't Find EMS Coverage

nj.com

New Jersey’s “incredible shrinking township” may be too small to provide ambulance service for its residents, say Shrewsbury Township officials, who have struggled to arrange for service since the last squad it used folded a year ago.

“We’re talking human life here, and it’s very frustrating, and it’s ongoing,” said Mayor Glenwood Puhak, who leads the three-member Shrewsbury Township Committee.

“The attorney’s been calling around, Tinton Falls and other areas, and we’ve been striking out,” added Puhak, 70, a retired Fort Monmouth technical writer. “I’m not a spring chicken so I may need the service myself.”

In early 2020, township officials said they were informed by the Long Branch First Aid Squad that it could no longer provide service to the town. And so the township has been without a contract with a private squad or a shared services agreement with a municipality that operates its own EMS service.

In true emergencies, residents and township officials say service has been provided by the New Jersey State Police, which patrols the township and responds to 9-1-1 calls because Shrewsbury Township does not have its own police department.

“But that’s not their job,” the mayor said, adding that residents alarmed by the situation have expressed their concerns repeatedly during committee meetings.

Long Branch First Aid did not respond to requests for comment by NJ Advance Media.

At just 62 acres, Shrewsbury Township is New Jersey’s smallest municipality in area. Remarkably, it was once the largest, covering nearly 1,000 square miles when it was formed in 1693, encompassing all of present-day Ocean County and much of Monmouth.

But in the centuries since, dozens of municipal offshoots have incorporated out from under the township, leaving just the .097-square-mile town in northeastern Monmouth County, bordered and dwarfed by Shrewsbury Borough (2.1 square miles) to the northeast, and surrounded almost entirely by Tinton Falls (15.6 square miles) — which were both once part of the shrunken township.

Shrewsbury Township Attorney Gene Anthony said he had reached out to numerous surrounding towns and squads, as well as hospitals, without success. All have either told him they cannot provide the service, or they simply haven’t responded.

“I’ve contacted by phone and email almost every town within 5 miles,” said Anthony.

Anthony said his best hope was for an arrangement with one of the two squads in the township’s surrounding neighbor, Tinton Falls EMS North, and Anthony asked the borough administrator, Tom Fallon, for any help he might be able to provide. Fallon told NJAM that, although the borough does make annual payments to the squads, they are private, independently operated organizations, and there was little he or the borough could do other than try to put Shrewsbury in touch with its the squad’s leaders.

“Any agreement for such a shared service would have to be between the EMS squad and the Township of Shrewsbury,” said Fallon, noting that the volunteer squad could well have staffing constraints. “A lot of what they can do depends on the number of volunteers that they have.” Tinton Falls EMS North did not respond to requests for comment.

Shrewsbury Township children attend Tinton Falls schools, and the Tinton Falls Fire Department does respond to blazes in the township. And with their intimate geography, some observers have suggested a merger of Shrewsbury Township and Tinton Falls would make the most sense.

“If I were in the township I would try to make some kind of consolidation with Tinton Falls,” said Gee Gee Blair, vice president of the Shrewsbury Borough Rescue Squad.

Blair said her all-volunteer squad was already overburdened with calls within the borough’s borders.

“I don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to go to another town,” said Blair, a trustee of the Shrewsbury Historical Society.

Puhak conceded that merging with a neighbor “would solve a lot of problems.”

Shrewsbury is not alone when it comes to difficulty maintaining first aid service. Volunteer and paid squads serving towns of all sizes are having trouble staying afloat, with their leaders blaming the situation on increasingly onerous certification requirements for emergency medical technicians and reduced reimbursements for hospital transports.

Squads in Hamilton, Howell and Neptune, to name just a few, have folded in recent months, putting pressure on nearby squads, with Shrewsbury officials pointing to financial troubles for the volunteer squad in West Long Branch. When the 94-year-old Belmar First Aid Squad folded on March 31, the borough essentially took over the service and converted it into a municipal squad under the police department.

With the township’s modest government and small population — estimated at 993 in 2019 — officials say starting its own squad is out of the question.

State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who represents Shrewsbury Township in the 11th Legislative District, said he had reached out to various officials in the emergency services community trying to broker some kind of arrangement.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to help them with some kind of resolution,” said Gopal, a former volunteer EMT for Colts Neck and Freehold who was studying for an exam to renew certification when he was reached Wednesday night.

One of the officials Gopal said he contacted was Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden, whose office runs the county’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch center. The center relays calls to the New Jersey State Police.

Golden’s office issued a statement saying it had no formal role in actually treating or transporting sick or injured people, and would not assume one.

“Monmouth County is not involved in any of Shrewsbury Township’s EMS functions, nor does it plan to be,” the statement read. “EMS is a local function and while this is an unfortunate situation for Shrewsbury Township, it’s our understanding that there have been talks among the township, neighboring towns and private paid providers.”

All of the township’s residents live in a trio of multi-family housing developments: the Shrewsbury Woods condominium complex; the Alfred Vail Mutual Association co-op; and the Shrewsbury Arms rental apartments.

“We have no single-family homes, and then we have one store, one commercial ratable,” said Puhak.

Centered around former military housing for the base where Puhak used to work, Shrewsbury Township is not a wealthy community compared to its surroundings. Its 2010 median household income of $51,548 was 40% below the statewide figure, and roughly half the Monmouth County median.

The township’s annual budget of $1 million pays mainly for road work and other public maintenance arranged by two full-time employees, an administrator and public works director, plus a part-time municipal clerk and other part-timers, Puhak said. The housing developments arrange for private trash hauling.

But the township’s modest finances are sound, Puhak said, and there are cash reserves that could be spent on ambulance service, if a provider is willing.

“Certainly, a million-dollar budget is not a lot,” Puhak said. “But we are willing to pay.”

 

 

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