Many communities across New York state are struggling with a real problem: The low number of people volunteering in emergency medical services.

In a three-part series, Spectrum News takes a look at the issue, why it's happening, approaches to fix staffing levels, and how it could affect Hudson Valley communities in the long-term.

The Ostrander Family

It all started in 1974, when Sue Ostrander and her father witnessed a bad accident near their home when she was a child. After that, she signed up with the town of Newburgh Ambulance Corps as a junior responder. Volunteering in emergency services quickly became a family affair, and after a few years, both parents and all four children in the Ostrander family were first responders for the department. 

"When you see somebody else up and somebody else you feel that you have to help and it just went right through the whole family," said Kevin Ostrander, a current firefighter.

Volunteerism in the area is seeing a major decline. The Ostranders think the reasons scale a few different areas. First, with today's high cost of living, there is a need for multiple incomes, which as Sue explains, is not how it was when she was growing up.

"You know there were a lot of families where the moms didn't have to work. You know the mothers and the younger members would ride during the day and get out for all the calls and then when the fathers got home they typically would take over and do the night shifts," Sue said.

Another reason is a possible generational shift in the community service mentality. 

"I think it's the way people are being brought up nowadays," Kevin said. 

In addition to being a longtime volunteer, until recently Margaret Ostrander was the Orange County Emergency Services coordinator and she says the growing amount of people moving to suburban areas from major cities — where the EMS services are paid — is a big reason for the decline. 

"They don't realize the fire departments and ambulance services are all considered volunteers," Margaret said

The Ostranders' main concern is who is going to replace them.

"It's something we've been trying to figure out for a long time. We've tried different things similar to the fire house; we've had open houses, we've had recruitment days, the firehouses have recruitment days, and the people just don't come," Sue said.

How Municipalities Are Dealing With the Crisis

The Hudson Valley is in what Orange County EMS Coordinator Kurt Hahn calls a volunteer EMS crisis. 

"The main reason you should care about this crisis is when you dial 911, you expect somebody to respond," Hahn said.

Many ambulance corps in the area have had to resort to paid staff because of the lack in volunteers, which is a huge financial strain, since many ambulance corps in the area don't receive consistent tax dollars. The town of Newburgh ambulance corps made this switch about a year ago.

"We were willing to pay to make those coverage but because we receive no funding from our town, you know we had to pay more money to cover those shifts which hurts us — our only source of income is through billing," said Brian Pilus, the town of Newburgh Ambulance Corps chief. 

If these departments do not get the volunteers they need, essentially one of two things will happen — either they will shut down completely, or they will switch to a hybrid system like Newburgh did, where there's part volunteer and part paid responders.

"[When corps shut down], those are places now going to require mutual aid and stuff like that, which will put more stress on townships like ours and the areas those people cover," Pilus said.

Mutual aid is when towns are assigned to help out with calls in other places besides their own when there is a lack of manpower, to make sure someone responds to the 911 call. Hahn says another concern with the lack of volunteers is what happens if disaster strikes.

"So whether it be a natural disaster, or a bus crash, or a plane crash, or anything like that that might tax our system, we aren't going to have extra personnel to respond to an emergency in a timely manner," Hahn said.

Hahn says people can help by making sure the resources ambulance corps do have are used properly, and to educate themselves on what situations require an ambulance.

Back to the Ostranders, Margaret Retires from EMS After Two Decades

Margaret Ostrander made history as the first woman firefighter at the Cronomer Valley fire department. 

"Knowing I was the only woman there, it was very difficult for the men to accept," Margaret said. 

While she says it was rewarding, she decided to move on and become an EMT. Margaret has been with the town of Newburgh Ambulance Corps for the last two decades and is retiring from being an EMT, to spend more time with her family and travel.

"Riding the ambulance, being an EMT, being a captain for so many years, holding several different hats, officer hats, I’ve enjoyed it a lot," Margaret said.

Even though Margaret is hanging up her hat as an EMT, she still plans to be involved in the ambulance corps. She's on the board of directors and still plans to be an ambulance driver, which she says is the most rewarding part.

Her advice to the younger volunteers: Keep moving up in the ranks.

"When I joined this ambulance corps, I had no medical experience whatsoever besides CPR, so it is rewarding to be able to get your certifications and to be a team lead on an ambulance," Margaret said.