In a year-end rush, a Suffolk County waiver committee last week plowed through dozens of requests until the health department asked for what seemed to be routine permission to extend the contract of Zoll Data Systems for up to three years.
For $105,500 a year, the company since 2008 has supplied the county with software that enables local ambulance companies to electronically report the condition and preliminary treatment of emergency patients en route to the hospital. A health department memo touted Zoll as "qualified, reliable and responsible."
However, under questioning, health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken and his aides acknowledged what the written request failed to mention: only one volunteer ambulance corps out of more than 100 in the county use the high-tech system. That one, officials later said, is in Sag Harbor.
"You mean we're spending $105,000 for just one ambulance corps?" asked Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga). "That's why government gets a bad name."
Tomarken conceded progress in getting participation has been slow. "Our problems with volunteers is that you can't compel them to do it," even though "electronic medical records is the future" throughout the health field, he said.
Health officials say the system's hardware -- which already has cost the county more than $800,000 -- gives hospital personnel standardized electronic records of patients' symptoms, condition and treatment by emergency workers to help doctors diagnose them once they arrive. That record can be used by health officials to find better ways to treat emergency victims and improve the system.
Joel Vetter, Fire Rescue and Emergency Services chief of support services, said problems arose early on because Suffolk only provided the software and central servers while local ambulance units had to buy costly laptops, similar to those used in police cars, at $5,000 apiece. "If you had four or five ambulances, it could be tough to get involved," he said.
Robert DeLagi, health department director of emergency medical services, also said ambulance crews needed multiple logins to connect, which often made it difficult to retrieve data through the firewall of the county computer system. He said health officials and FRES, which provides services including fire rescue communications, early this year realized the system had to be relaunched.
"We understood the need to provide a better product," DeLagi said.
Officials say Zoll, of Bloomfield, Colorado, has reconfigured its system so ambulances can use less expensive iPad-type units, and that training will be improved. Vetter said the county expects 20 ambulance companies to sign on by April.
Health officials said the contract extension should cost less because the county is moving from a flat fee to an arrangement in which it will only pay based on the number of ambulance runs in which the system is used. If 20 participate, they say the cost would drop to about $70,000 to $75,000 annually. If Sag Harbor remains the sole user, the cost would be only about $3,000.
Lora Gellerstein, the waiver committee's legislative representative, sought to table the contract extension to determine the extent of problems. "It's alarming to me that this could have gone on for so many years," Gellerstein said.
The committee's members from the administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Eric Kopp and Luis Montes, declined to second her motion. The three-member panel then agreed to only a one-year extension.
Several lawmakers say the legislature will scrutinize the issue early next year. "Who can argue with getting more information -- it's a great idea," said Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville). "But if we can't get more participation, we have to consider whether we keep putting in county resources."