There’s a quirkiness about Harrison that I love.
We have great wealth and great sophistication, a town budget of $54.8 million, major companies and well-known and respected executives among our ranks.
Yet we also have a monthly birthday party for town hall staff, a mayor who is on a first name basis with residents and town board meetings where well-known characters regularly hold court.
It is this mix that I find most compelling and most endearing. So I was tickled to walk into the offices of (EMS) this week and find that same quirkiness in evidence.
Harrison’s EMS provides ambulance transport for the entire town—one of the largest in terms of land area in the central and south portions of Westchester County. It has an annual budget of $2.2 million, only $500,000 of which is town-funded, has a paid staff of 56, made up of 24 paramedics and 22 Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and has successfully been in operation for 30 years.
The service covers 3,400 emergency calls a year—a nine per-day average—and has responsibility for major New York thoroughfares including Interstate 287, Interstate 95 and the Hutchison River Parkway. They are also a primarily responder for Westchester County Airport.
Yet this important office is located in a little house off the parking lot of . You enter by ringing a residential doorbell and are greeted by Chief Joe Bilotto's enthusiastic, tail-wagging dog. A movie blares from the TV to keep staff occupied between calls, and someone is whipping something up in the open-plan kitchen. Several officers gather around the kitchen table that serves as both lunchroom and meeting space.
EMS staffers are rotated through shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week and there is a bunkroom for night-shift personnel off the large open living space.
This busy, critical service is run from a homey downstairs office, decorated with a punching bag with someone’s photo on it, a toy hand-grenade and innumerable other knick-knacks that demonstrate the irreverent nature of Bilotto, the service’s charismatic chief. Bilotto joined Harrison EMS 19 years ago. He is friendly, funny and outspoken; and leads the quirky culture behind the service.
These homey surroundings actually serve an important purpose. EMS officers handle life and death situations on an hourly basis. Many calls are emotionally harrowing—especially in a town where many officers grew up locally and know many of the patients.
“My first call in Harrison turned out to be very personally difficult,” recalled Bilotto. “It was my aunt, who had basically raised me following my parents’ divorce. She suffered a massive heart attack and, although we worked on her, she was dead before we arrived at the hospital.”
Another tough call for the team was the call for Joe Acocella, Harrison’s beloved former town clerk in August 2011.
“He was here at the office often, we all knew him personally and he was a very close friend. That was a very tough call,” recalled Bilotto, who was there the day EMS crews responded to Acocella's home after he .
Lieutenant Cindy Mercado, who has been with the service for 14 years, says the family atmosphere is critical, especially during the difficult times.
“The team is each others’ strongest support. We act as a second family in good times and bad," she said. "We come together here to talk through the tough situations and even cry over them at times.”
But the hominess doesn't mean that this is not a tight-run, well-oiled and efficient operation. In fact, Harrison EMS officers are required to have a higher level of experience than many neighboring municipalities and are dedicated to their job.
An alarm sounded during our interview—think blaring alert siren, flashing strobe lights and official police loudspeaker announcement of incident and location—and the lunch dishes were abandoned, the irreverent humor dropped and personnel were in the ambulance and on their way to the location within minutes.
Most Harrison clients are aged between 25 and 40. The highest number of calls come from car accidents, followed by drug and alcohol incidents from local colleges. With the declining economy, the service has seen an increase in anxiety and domestic abuse incidents.
The EMS officers work shoulder-to-shoulder with police, dealing with the aftermath of violence and frequently encountering emotionally disturbed, intoxicated or violent clients.
Despite the difficult situations, officers say they love what they do.
“I love that it’s different every day," said Bilotto. “I can really say that I love coming to work. Even on vacation I am wondering what is going on and what I am missing.”
“We all love our job. We make a difference in peoples lives," she said. "You pick patients up and they’re crying and upset and then you quickly have them feeling safe and laughing. That makes it all okay.”