Every seat in the room was taken, and it was standing room only at the Village of Great Neck Board of Trustees public meeting on Tuesday, March 7. Nearly a dozen young Vigilant volunteers and concerned residents stood with the overflow crowd in the foyer waiting area and on the porch outside.
The first item on the board’s agenda was the public meeting with the community to discuss a rumored proposal to terminate services from the Great Neck Vigilant Engine and Hook & Ladder Co., Inc., also known as the Vigilant Fire Company, and instead utilize Northwell Health, previously known as the North Shore-LIJ Health System.
After the pledge of allegiance, Mayor Pedram Bral requested that in the interest of time, public comment be limited to a statement from Leon Korobow, the Great Neck resident who first requested the public meeting regarding Vigilant. After several members of the audience objected, Mayor Bral agreed to allow other audience members to make statements.
Mayor Bral said that there is currently “no plan” in existence to eliminate Vigilant as the EMS provider for the Great Neck peninsula. He further stated that there was a single meeting with Northwell that took place four months ago with all nine mayors of the villages. Although the meeting took place at the Village Hall of Great Neck, Mayor Bral did not initiate the meeting, and reiterated that since that one meeting four months ago, there had been no further discussions with Northwell. He explained that he believed he had a “fiduciary duty” as mayor to “seek out the best services and costs” for the village.
Kenneth A. Gray, attorney for the village, then made a statement as counsel to the village, attesting that the board is “pleased with Vigilant’s services”. Strong applause by the audience followed. Gray further stated that notwithstanding the satisfaction with services, the Board of Trustees has a “fiduciary responsibility to be fiscally prudent” and has an “obligation to seek out alternate proposals [to Vigilant]”.
Korobow was the first resident to make a statement. He said that he was only speaking on his own behalf, and that the mayor has an obligation to “listen to everyone.”
In his statement, Korobow said, “You have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of all the residents. You are worried about saving a few bucks. You didn’t mention your obligation to place a priority on health and safety. You have a huge crowd here, and you have an obligation to hear people speak.”
Members of the audience responded to Korobow’s remarks with a huge round of applause. The mayor, an OB/GYN, responded by stating that he has dedicated 20 years of his life to health care and had no intention to increase response time by ambulances in order to save money. In fact, he said that Vigilant’s service was “amazing,” but that “every once in a while, we need to see what else is out there. We must answer to the comptroller.” He stated that there were “misstatements” and “rumors flying around,” but these were unwarranted.
The next speaker was Judy Rosenthal, a 20-year resident of Great Neck. In her prepared remarks, she stated: “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Vigilant will always care more, do more and deliver more. Why is village government trying to save money on a matter of life and death? Vigilant volunteers live in the community and they are extraordinarily responsive. They display exemplary acts of courage. They call Great Neck home. They deliver personalized ambulance service that we take for granted. They are the gold standard.”
Rosenthal then directed her comments to Mayor Bral. “I voted for you, and you promised to be the mayor for all residents. I am alarmed at the projects you are giving attention to,” she continued. “The last mayor was arrogant and self-absorbed and we voted him out. You need to put health and public safety first. You should know better. Your actions erode our faith in you and in our government.”
Michael Greene, a 45-year resident of Great Neck and chairman for the Alert Fire Company, was the next resident to speak. He urged the board to “be aware of all factors, not just financial. It is a disservice to the community to make a decision based on finances,” said Greene. “When we have a Signal 10 building fire, Vigilant brings an ambulance and crew and they stay there the whole time. They respond to all of the calls in the area without a lack of service. Northwell will not do that. Volunteers do much more than a paid department. Northwell will never get to a neighbor’s house within 15 seconds. That’s what volunteers do.”
Mayor Bral responded to Greene, “We are doing our due diligence. That’s all. If Northwell ever offers a proposal, it must be better than Vigilant. If anything is proposed, we will inform the public.”
Other residents spoke about concerns regarding the potentially exorbitant cost of emergency services through Northwell. A woman named Brett asked the board, “Can you guarantee what Northwell will charge for its services? If God forbid a family member gets sick, we will be billed thousands of dollars. We are grateful and proud to have Vigilant.”
Brett went on to relate the details of an incident that occurred with her friend who lives on Baker Hill Road. Turns out, Vigilant volunteers saved her friend’s life with their “quick response and excellent service,” she said. “They provided her with oxygen and took her to the hospital,” where she spent the next 11 days.
David Silverman, a 45-year Great Neck resident asked the mayor how much is paid to Vigilant annually, to which the mayor responded, “Approximately $250,000.”
Silverman explained the reason for his question. “My grandchildren also live in Great Neck and I sleep soundly at night because I know that the volunteers of Vigilant are on the watch.”
Bonnie Beecher, a resident of 48 years shared her experience with Vigilant. “My husband collapsed at home during a snow storm,” she said. “I didn’t shovel the snow because it was still coming down. I was amazed at how quickly Vigilant responded during the storm. Eight volunteers showed up, and one of them shoveled the walk. They gave my husband oxygen and carried him on a stretcher in the snow. They got there just in time because his blood pressure dropped. I came here tonight because I am so grateful for their service.”
The following speaker was Jean Pierce, who directed her comments to Trustee Bart Sobel and the board. “Leonard Samansky [who had been mayor of the village of Saddle Rock for two decades] must be turning over. He always supported Vigilant,” she said. “If the village has 6,000 residents and we divide that into $250,000 per year, that is only $41 per resident. If there were 650 calls, then it costs only $384 per call for expert medical treatment. You know a doctor charges more than that.”
Pierce raised the issue of traffic on Community Drive, and the anticipated increase in traffic due to the development of Avalon Bay. “Can Northwell respond as quickly as Vigilant?” she asked. “And, how much will Northwell charge?” She then asked Mayor Bral about his “affiliations with Northwell.” Mayor Bral responded that he has privileges at the hospital system, but no other affiliation.
The next speaker was Vigilant Chief Joshua Forst, a resident of Great Neck and the parent of two children who attend Great Neck schools. He said that he had sent two letters to the board regarding the status of Vigilant’s contract, but the letters were not answered. There were issues regarding billing. “The village budget for Vigilant was $256,000. That is 3.9 percent of the village budget.”
Chief Forst went on to say that the owners of a $900,000 house pay less than $200 per year for EMS services. He remarked that the 2016 “contract for Vigilant has not been signed.” Members in the audience asked the board, “Why?”
Chief Forst suggested a “public referendum” to decide the issue so that the public can make the decision regarding EMS services.
Attorney Kenneth Gray said that this matter is “not appropriate for referendum.”
Carol Frank, former editor of the Great Neck Record, gave the next statement to the board. She said she had covered this issue for many years, and that there is a long history in the community, which is why there are “tensions.” She said that there are “rumors circulating, and it has hit a nerve,” she continued. “Payment by insurance has long been a controversial issue. There was discussion of separating the fire department from the ambulance. But these are all intertwined. It is a whole web of a community, with personnel and equipment. A $180,000 feasibility study was done, and the final conclusion was that what we have is working. As a matter of geography, we live on a peninsula and the issue of traffic is getting worse. The community has spoken. Please leave the service as it is.”
Frank also pointed out that the community has invested decades of tax dollars to pay for equipment, supplies and training. “If you rip it apart, what happens to our investment?”
The following speaker, Ron Campbell, emphasized that people are moving to Great Neck because of its excellent services, including Vigilant. He asked the mayor, “Are you looking at the cost of all services across the board or only at the cost of Vigilant? Can Northwell respond to a mass incident? You are talking money. I am talking lives.”
Norman Wheeler, a Great Neck resident and teacher at Great Neck South, inquired about who initiated the meeting with Northwell. Mayor Bral saud that the issue predated his term as mayor.
Harold Citron asked, “What was discussed at the meeting with Northwell four months ago? Are there minutes or slides from the meeting?”
Members of the audience then called out, “When will the contract with Vigilant be signed? Sign the contract!”
The mayor replied that the issue will be put on the agenda “in the near future.” He would not comment on exactly when, or why, the contract wasn’t signed yet.
The final speaker of the evening was Ira Cooper, who spoke of the “speed and enthusiasm” of Vigilant’s response. “My son is a member of Vigilant,” he said. “I am proud of his “commitment and enthusiasm to serve the community.”
After the meeting, Great Neck Vigilant President Phil Katz, who had served for 17 years as a member and is currently in his fourth month of a one-year term, explained that Vigilant has 70 years of experience as an ambulance company and more than 100 years as a fire company.
“The volunteer team is a cross section of the community, with experienced volunteers who are Jewish, Christian and Muslim,” he said. “The volunteers are multilingual, including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Hebrew and Farsi. We meet the needs of the community. We are the community.”
Volunteer Daniel Behnam, who is Mashadi, has served with Vigilant for four years and is now a fire lieutenant. In his first three years with Vigilant, he answered 750 calls a year. He is currently a college student and is still a Vigilant volunteer. Behnam talked about a remarkable fellow volunteer Jay Liu, who is Asian, and learned to speak Farsi at New York University. Liu is currently a medical student.
After the meeting, Chief Forst further explained that the 2016 Vigilant contract was presented to the Great Neck Board of Trustees nearly a year ago in April 2016. According to Chief Forst, with previous mayors the contract was signed promptly. He said that Mayor Bral has had ample time to review and sign the contract.
“Why hasn’t he done so? he asked. “Will he sign the 2016 and 2017 contract to commit to the end of this year? The budget for Vigilant’s services is known to the board and has only increased 10 percent in the past five years. There have been at least 30 improvements during that time, including paramedic services, new ambulances, quick-response vehicles, compression machines, CPR devices and new drugs. The community has spoken. It’s past time for the contract to be signed.”
Read “Vigilant Calls For Public Meeting As Villages Consider Shift In Emergency Services To Northwell,” “Speak Out About Shift From Vigilant Ambulance At Village Board Meeting,” “We Already Have The Best Ambulance Provider,” “Kings Point Meets Tonight To Discuss Switch From Vigilant,” “Kings Point Village Stands Unequivocally With Vigilant” and “Packed Meeting Discusses Termination Of Vigilant.”