Kearny EMS will be no more after Dec. 31 … then what happens?

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Kearny Emergency Rescue Squad, also known as Kearny Emergency Medical Services, will end a two-decade-long tenure in town and Kearny figures to have a replacement lined up by then.

The town’s governing body is slated to meet shortly to select another private firm to provide the service for 90 days pending solicitation of proposals for a permanent operator.

Mayor Alberto G. Santos offered this background in a Dec. 23 email.

 “On Dec. 7, 2022, we were notified by Harry McNeil, head of the Kearny (EMS) squad, that the current EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) squad would cease operating at the end of Dec. 31, 2022.

“At this juncture, I can say we expect to award a contract for the provision of EMT services to a highly qualified provider at a special meeting of the mayor and council to be held (at 6 p.m.) on Dec. 29.  There will be no gap in coverage with the new provider beginning on Jan. 1, 2023.  Details on the new provider will be made public at the Dec. 29 meeting,” the mayor said.

According to a source familiar with the town’s EMS situation, Kearny has received two proposals from outfits looking to provide a 3-month stopgap service: N.J. Mobile Health Care EMS, based in Mahwah, has offered to do the job for $173,375 per month; and RWJBarnabas Health, based in New Brunswick, says it can do it at no cost to the town.

The bid proposal specifications require the chosen vendor operate from the same town-owned Maple Street facility as the current provider and offer a minimum of two ambulances staffed by four EMTs “at peak hours” during one 12-hour shift and at least one ambulance and two EMTs during the other 12-hour shift.

Similar to the current setup, the vendor would bill those receiving the ambulance service through patient insurance plans and/or patient fees. All billing would be handled by the vendor, not the town.

Neighboring communities that have mutual aid agreements for emergency ambulance service, when needed, are being notified of the pending transition in Kearny, the source said.

Between July 2011 and January 2014, Kearny EMS had been an “interim provider” of emergency ambulance services to Harrison and East Newark, but opted out after concluding it wasn’t collecting sufficient revenues to cover its costs, Mayor Santos said at the time.  Having no hospital affiliation agreements that could facilitate fiscal reimbursement applications was a factor in that decision, according to the mayor.

As Kearny’s emergency ambulance service provider, Kearny EMS has operated rent-free from the Maple Street building where the town continues to monitor indoor air levels, aided by a Licensed State Remediation Professional, following the removal of an underground oil storage tank in the 1990s.

The town has covered the cost of utilities for the building, along with the insurance premium on the ambulances and gas for those vehicles, according to the source, who said state policy limits municipal expenses in support of EMS functions to no more than $70,000 annually.

Nonetheless, Kearny EMS has reportedly struggled to stay afloat and has “petitioned to have the town take over the service,” but has failed to respond to the town’s request for financial paperwork that could lend credence to the operator’s economic hardship, the source said.

A retired Kearny Fire Department superior officer said in recent years, mutual aid calls for emergency ambulance service “were on the increase, not just in Kearny but everywhere in the region.” At one point, he said, Kearny EMS had two ambulances, then began slipping back to “one and a half,”and was “trying to put a second in service based on the growing demand during peak hours.”

But he said “COVID took its toll” on EMT personnel.

Several years ago, the Town Council in a split vote defeated a proposal for the KFD — whose members are required to become certified EMTs — to take over EMS duties.  Kearny firefighters can treat victims at a fire scene but cannot transport them to a hospital — a task assigned to Kearny EMS.

The source familiar with Kearny EMS matters estimated if the KFD did assume that responsibility, the town would likely have to pay up to $1 million to set up and run a billing system for the transporting of residents to area hospitals and related responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Town Council President Carol Jean Doyle said she was “sorry to see Harry (McNeill) go after all this time with the town, but as far as the details go about replacing his service, I’m waiting to be briefed, along with rest of the council.”

Harrison and North Arlington, in particular, have been helping Kearny with mutual aid, she said.

Doyle said the difficulties associated with running such a service aren’t unique to Kearny.

“All our neighboring towns are begging for help.  It’s a concern for all of us on the council and especially for the people who live here,” although she noted, “luckily, I haven’t had any complaints from my Third Ward constituents.”

Kearny EMS Chief McNeill, who has in recent years faced personal and professional financial pressures unrelated to the ambulance service, was the target of a complaint filed earlier this year by an EMT alleging failure to provide worker’s compensation.

McNeill was offered an opportunity by this newspaper to explain his decision to close up shop in Kearny but, so far, he has yet to do so.

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Ron Leir | For The Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.

He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.

He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York