Island ambulance service bears the cost of Obama vacation

When President Obama returns to Martha’s Vineyard in August, Tri-Town Ambulance will be expected to dedicate a crew to the security detail.

In this 2014 file photo, the presidential motorcade heads back up-Island to Chilmark carrying Barack Obama following a round of golf at the Farm Neck Golf Club. — MV Times

In the last year of his presidency, and for the seventh time in eight years, President Obama and his family will vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in August. Past vacation itineraries have included almost daily golf outings, trips to the beach, and dinner out with friends.

Each time the president sets out on Island roadways, he will be accompanied by a security contingent that will include State Police and Secret Service. And within the motorcade as it speeds along the Island’s rural roads will be a Tri-Town Ambulance.

As a matter of security policy, the Secret Service requests that an ambulance accompany the president whenever he moves. The responsibility and cost for meeting that request fall on the Island’s volunteer ambulance departments.

For the president’s first six Island vacations, Oak Bluffs Emergency Medical Services (EMS) provided an ambulance. Two years ago, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief and head of EMS John Rose told the Secret Service his department could no longer cover the cost.

In August, for the second summer in a row, Tri-Town Ambulance, which serves Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, will provide an ambulance and crew to accompany President Obama’s security contingent.

The cost to provide that service will take a bite out of the department’s $995,602 FY 2017 budget, the lion’s share of which is split evenly among the three towns, plus insurance reimbursements.

Tri-Town Ambulance Chief Ben Retmier told The Times the Secret Service will not reimburse the department for the costs of special EMS duty. “Last year it was about $10,000 to $12,000 just in personnel,” he said. “That does not include fuel, maintenance.”

Although special-duty costs may seem comparatively small in the context of an almost $1 million budget, Tri-Town board member and Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman said that the budget is too tight for such costs.

“We don’t have extra money,” he said in a telephone call with The Times. “We have just what we need. We draw the line very closely to the budget.” Mr. Newman said that Tri-Town provides “top-notch ambulance service,” and while some voters may think it costs too much, he feels the service is offered at a very reasonable price. He added that cost overruns like special-duty EMS exhaust funds that might be needed for unexpected expenditures like major ambulance repair.

Last year the Obamas enjoyed 16 days on the Vineyard. This August, they are expect to remain on the Island for 17 days, from August 5 to 21. The Obamas are once again expected to stay in Chilmark at the home of Joanne Hubschman on Gosnold’s Way off Prospect Hill Road, which overlooks the north shore and Vineyard Sound. The seven-bedroom, nine-bath, 8,100-square-foot house sits on a 10-acre lot and features 17 rooms in total, expansive water views of Vineyard Sound, an infinity pool and hot tub, and a dual tennis-basketball court.

Mr. Obama and his family have vacationed on the Island every year since his 2008 election, with the exception of 2012, when he was campaigning for re-election. Chilmark is their favored vacation spot.

August is a busy month. In order to maintain normal EMS coverage when the President arrives, Tri-Town must temporarily add personnel.

“On a normal day in the summer, we have an EMT in each station and two paramedics on duty,” Chief Retmier said. “So that’s the normal crew providing coverage for the three up-Island towns. When we’re doing the presidential detail, we bring on an additional EMT and paramedic, and they’re solely responsible for taking an ambulance and following the presidential detail.”

According to Chief Retmier, although he must add EMS staff, Tri-Town loses one of its three ambulances, which is assigned to the president over the course of his stay. Recently the Tri-Town Ambulance board instructed Chief Retmier to reach out to the EMS departments of Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown for help filling the ambulance gap, as well as for help footing the special duty bill. He said no town was able to commit to help, given the relatively short notice. However, they all agreed to provide mutual-aid coverage.

“If one of my ambulances goes out on a detail, they’ll send up one of theirs for the day to stage in a given town as coverage,” he said.

Civic duty cited

Prior to Tri-Town, Oak Bluffs, which fields more ambulances and personnel, met the Secret Service request to provide an EMS detail when the president came to the Island.

“There’s a huge extra coverage burden,” Oak Bluffs Fire and EMS Chief John Rose told The Times. “Oak Bluffs Ambulance provided an ambulance for the President in the motorcade and traveled everywhere the President went every day, for the whole duration that he was here. It costs a substantial amount of money to staff those ambulances.”

After five years of providing an ambulance and personnel, Chief Rose said he asked the Secret Service to help defray the cost to provide ambulance staff. Essentially, Chief Rose was told it was the town’s “civic duty” and “an honor.” No funding was offered.

“So we politely told them that we couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “Tri-Town Ambulance took it over the past two years, but they are in the same boat this year, and are reaching out to all of us to try to help, saying we can’t pay this either.”

Reached by telephone, Special Agent Brian Deck of the U.S. Secret Service field office in Boston told The Times that the Secret Service had no mechanism to reimburse for ambulance services, whether provided on Martha’s Vineyard or anywhere else in the country.