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Shelter Island EMS — in a good place with diversity and numbers

In 20 years, Mark Kanarvogel has seen significant changes in the Shelter Island Emergency Medical Services agency, not just a spike in membership, but in the makeup of the volunteers.

“When I joined,” the chief of the Island’s EMS said recently, “there was one woman — Helen Rosenblum. Now it’s a 2 to 1 ratio of women to men. Which is awesome.”

Ms. Rosenblum was honored last month by the Eastern Long Island Hospital Foundation in Greenport, which dedicated its new Emergency Room Ambulance Ramp Entrance to her memory. She was an assistant chief of the Shelter Island Red Cross Ambulance, the forerunner of the town’s EMS, and was part of the county-wide EMS system.

Women perform every duty as men for the agency, but can make a huge difference in bringing comfort and a degree of calm to emergency situations where women need assistance, Chief Kanarvogel said. This is especially true for older women who need help.

“Many times, an old lady who needs help will react [to the woman volunteer] like she’s her daughter or granddaughter who is helping her,” he said.

An example of the service EMS volunteers provided the Island can be found in the numbers. In 2023 there 357 emergency calls were answered; through May 12 of this year, 121 calls were answered

The other notable change in the Island’s EMS is that in 2004, when Chief Kanarvogel volunteered, there were about 20 members; now the agency numbers 30 Islanders.

Det. Sgt. Jack Thilberg, director of the EMS, said one reason the numbers have increased is careful vetting of volunteers. Focus is placed on “recruitment, but just as importantly, retention” of members, the director said. “We’re not looking for someone who doesn’t have a sense of commitment to this work, but someone who is signing up for the long haul.”

“People should know,” Chief Kanarvogel added, “this is 24/7. It’s not for everyone.”

The agency is also looking at a different demographic for recruits, Sgt. Thilberg said. “In the past we used to look to retired people to join, but now it’s young people, to lengthen the time they spend with the agency.” This brings the advantages of continuity and institutional knowledge to pass along.

Chief Kanarvogel said that people interested in volunteering should approach any of the volunteers they see around town, who are easily spotted by the shirts and jackets with the EMS logo. “We’ll speak with them, and invite them to a meeting,” he said.

The first step, if the initial impression is favorable, is to have them drive an ambulance. Then, serious training kicks in and, if still judged suitable, “They’ll be in the back of the ambulance with us.”

Stress often comes with the work, he added, remembering a recent incident when, during a training session, there were graphics on the scourge of child abuse. “I looked over and saw a young woman in training, she was closing her eyes” and obviously in distress.

Part of his job, he said, is to pay attention to the emotions and reactions of fellow volunteers who are experiencing stress related to their service. “We have to talk to them, take them out for coffee, just asking, ‘How you doing?’ Some of the things we see are gruesome and can stick with you. Everyone has ones that stick with you.”

Working in a small community, the Island EMS volunteers have another stress factor, compared to more populous communities. Timothy (TJ) Dalton, an EMT of the Year recipient, listed the advantages of working with colleagues who know each other well, not just from the job, but by having grown up together, seeing each other at social events, or around town and at community gatherings.

Working in emergency situations, Mr. Dalton said, you communicate through a kind of learned shorthand, knowing well everyone’s skills and personalities, which make the job of rendering assistance and care to those in need smoother and more professional.

But there is one challenge that departments in largely populated and geographically wide communities don’t have to face. “We’ll answer a call and show up where the person who needs immediate medical help is a relative, a family friend, someone we went to school with. Even a best friend,” Mr. Dalton said. “Sometimes we see them having the worst day of their lives. It can be hard. We have to let our training kick in and do our jobs, at the same time keeping our emotions in check.”

Often the stress is more severe on family members. “Sitting down to Christmas dinner and the call comes in and you have to go,” Chief Kanarvogel said. Or being called on three times in one day to head to EMS headquarters to get in an ambulance and go to assist someone in an emergency.

Sgt. Thilberg noted that training for volunteers is now fully funded by the town and the Shelter Island Ambulance Foundation. Practical advantages for volunteers is the ability to participate in the Length of Service Award Programs (LOSAP), which is, in effect, an earned pension system, and kicks in after age 65.

Under LOSAP, volunteers earn benefits by performing activities including answering a certain number of emergency calls and attending training exercises and agency meetings.

The other main reward, of course, is serving the community you live in, Chief Kanarvogel said, which boils down to, “Making a difference by doing the job.”

Rewards come from Islanders recognizing their service in different ways. One recent reward came when Chief Kanarvogel was shopping at the IGA and someone came up and gave him a hug for helping them, as a member of a team, on a recent call.

“That’s why we’re here, even if we’re not recognized,” he said. “Doing the job.”