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Deerfield to vote on ambulance service upgrade

DEERFIELD — On April 29, the townspeople will be asked to consider an upgraded 24-hour, seven-day paramedic ambulance service, separately from a proposed regional service with Sunderland and Whately.

This week, Emergency Management Director Matt Russo proposed two new staffing models that would cut back the calls the town’s EMTs miss due to a staffing shortage. The plan is to improve the town’s ambulance service while it waits for a regional plan to consider in the fall.

“We miss 20 percent of our calls where either no one shows up or we don’t have the extra staff to transfer the patient,” said Russo. “Yes, it’s a cost. Yes, it’s an increase. This is my attempt to build the service to a point so we can do a better job answering calls.”

Russo requested the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee to consider two staffing models.

The first model would schedule a paramedic-level EMT at the South Deerfield Fire District for 24 hours, seven days a week. For 16 hours, seven days a week, the paramedic would be backed up by an intermediate EMT. This would ensure the department is fully staffed. It takes two EMTs — one of which has to be a paramedic — to respond and transport a patient.

Overnight, one paramedic would staff the office. During a call, that paramedic would be met by a basic EMT who is on call.

The overnight on-call basic EMT would be paid $8 per hour to be ready to respond. Once the EMT does respond, he or she would get paid the average rate. Currently, on-call EMTs do not get paid unless they respond to a scene.

The second staffing model would have both a paramedic and an intermediate EMT at the station for 16 hours, seven days a week. Overnight, both the paramedic and basic EMTs would be on call.

For the 24/7 staffing model to begin July 1, it would cost an extra $127,864 to implement. For the 16/7 staffing model to begin July 1, would add an additional $95,045 to the budget.

But both models would bring in $300,000 in revenue from insurance companies based on the 600 runs the department makes yearly. The more calls the department responds to, the more money it brings in.

Right now, the department collects $170,000 in revenue, the average in the past three years. The current EMS department budget is $266,319.

There are four full-time EMTs and 18 volunteers.

The proposed change would also save the town on costs to the paramedic intercept service. It costs the town $250 each time the intercept responds to a call instead of Deerfield EMTs.

“We’re anticipating more revenue because right now we don’t respond to 20 percent of calls,” said Town Administrator Bernie Kubiak said.

The proposal was controversial as the town grapples with developing a balanced budget for the coming year. The Finance Committee voted to not recommend the proposal to the townspeople in April, while the selectmen voted to leave the request in the town meeting agenda.

The Finance Committee believed waiting for the regional proposal is the town’s best option.

Selectmen’s Chairman Mark Gilmore, on the other hand, said that the gap that has gotten the largest over the years is not the budget, but the ambulance service.

“We’re going to start looking at ‘what’s the cost of life?’” Gilmore said. “The ambulance service will give us a service that (decreases) a gap we’ve had growing for 17 years. The gap has gotten so big of who’s not getting service. It’s unacceptable and can’t wait another year.”

Part of the debate is whether the town wants to spend the available $661,000 in “free cash” surplus to help pay for the upgraded service with the hopes that the $300,000 in revenue is a conservative estimate.

“Right now we’re looking at a structural deficit,” Kubiak said. “We’re spending a lot of free cash. That’s the issue — do people want to risk it in the hopes we can raise the same amount of free cash next year and that $300,000 in revenue is a conservative estimate.”

Russo said if the town chooses to keep the service the same, the EMTs will “do the best we can to get there. We’re suffering, broken. The way to get more help is with more staffing.”

The proposed ramped-up service does not take a regional plan with Sunderland and Whately off the table. The proposal serves as a safeguard in case a regional service is never realized.

Since the fall, the three towns have been crunching numbers and hammering out ideas on how to create a 24-hour, seven-day regional ambulance service based out of the South Deerfield Fire Station for the townspeople to consider.

“There is still a regional proposal out there. We’re still working through it,” said Russo.

The oversight board made up of the three town administrators and EMT directors won’t have a specific regional proposal with budget figures until the fall, however.

The Whately Emergency Management Department also recently implemented its own improved service that created on-call shifts and higher stipends for EMTs.

Deputy Fire Chief Gary Stone, who is against joining a regional team, wished to give the selectmen another option to consider besides the regional proposal.

A strong advocate for an improved service, Gilmore said the town has needed to invest in a better EMS service for years and he does not want to wait any longer.

“I personally have pushed to get this thing moving forward,” Gilmore said. “Because we can’t have equipment and personnel that can’t work to their full capability. What I asked for is that no matter what happens we something.”

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
kmckiernan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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