Lyme allows ambulance volunteers to collect retirement funds without retiring

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Lyme — Volunteer ambulance crew members will no longer have to quit before they can draw on their retirement incentive funds.

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously on Monday to approve changes to the town’s ambulance service incentive plan, beginning this coming fall, in a move intended to improve retention among the all-volunteer service.

The change will allow ambulance service volunteers 65 or older to receive their benefit payout.

First Selectman David Lahm told the board, during a meeting at Town Hall, that the change made sense from a fiscal perspective and was essentially “revenue neutral,” for the town, with an estimated maximum administration cost of $200 per year, because the Lyme Ambulance Association will pay legal fees associated with amending the current plan.

“There was an aspect of the plan that was designed that said when you retire, you have access to your money, and it worked fine until we started to have ambulance people in their 70’s who didn’t have access to their money,” said Board President and Chief of Service Steve Olstein, when reached by phone on Monday. “The only way they could get it was to quit.”

The town’s incentive plan covers both fire and ambulance services, and pays an annually adjusted amount — $2,300 this year — into a fund payable to volunteers upon resignation. The change enacted Monday applies to ambulance service members only.

A volunteer resigning after five years of service is entitled to 50% of the money deposited on their behalf, and after ten years, they are entitled to 100% of it.

“I consider it to be a very generous program by the town,” Olstein said.

When originally created, the plan did not consider demographic differences between the two departments, Olstein said. Firefighting is a much more physically demanding role, and volunteers tend to retire earlier.

“I’ll be 70 next month, and I’m probably reasonably fit for a 70-year-old. I could never do what the fire guys do,” Olstein said.

In contrast, 25% of the ambulance service volunteers are over the age of 65, and their oldest member, Paul Ahnell, is 80.

Tracy McKee, a first responder and board member who sits on the pension committee said the change was welcomed. She said an older member has exhausted their pension from their former career, and now lives solely on social security, yet “has this very large (amount of money) in the account and has chosen to put the town’s welfare over their own in the hopes that we could actually accomplish this today.”

Small town, same shifts to cover

Retention of older members is essential to the continuation of the LAA, a non-profit organization comprised of approximately 20 volunteers, including nine Emergency Medical Technicians and six Emergency Medical Responders, and governed by a Board of Directors, which has been struggling to recruit volunteers to the service.

“Recruiting is very, very difficult,” said Olstein.

He said that the difficulty lies in Lyme’s small population of about 2,400 residents and that towns with larger populations than Lyme are also struggling to recruit, but have “a bigger pool,” to draw from.

“We have the same number of shifts,” he said. “Just because we have a quarter of the people, we still have 14 shifts,” to cover each week.

Ideally, he would like to have an additional 10 volunteers and said five more EMT’s or EMR’s would put Lyme in “a much stronger position,” but that the service doesn’t miss many calls and only relies on mutual aid from other towns about three times per year despite their staffing shortages.

“We have been, I think, unbelievably lucky for years that we’ve been able to manage it because we had some people that were very dedicated for a long period of time, but they’re all aging out,” he said.

The aging out of volunteers has caused the LAA to make other changes, to not only retain members, but recruit them, as an inability to staff shifts could force the town to hire a professional ambulance company at the cost of $200,000 a year, said Olstein.

Effective March 1, they began offering a stipend of $50 per ambulance run. About half of the volunteer service takes it while other members waive the payments.

“You don’t get rich,” volunteering for LAA, Olstein said. “Satisfaction has to come from inside.”