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Northfield EMS going up to paramedic level

NORTHFIELD — The town is on its way to being one of the few municipal paramedic-level ambulance services in the county, now that the Selectboard has reversed itself and supports the upgrade.

“I’m very excited about the move to paramedic service,” said Emergency Medical Service Chief Mark Fortier. “This change in licensure will be a huge benefit not only to residents and visitors, but to the county as a whole.”

The department would become the second town-run paramedic-level ambulance service in the county. The Orange Fire Department operates the only current town-run paramedic service.

A regional paramedic-level service in Sunderland, Deerfield and Whately has been approved, and hopes to begin service in March.

Much of the county relies on Baystate Health Ambulance for paramedic calls. With the sale of BHA to Canadian company MedaVie, many wonder if BHA’s level of service will decline.

“It’s important to move in this direction now, with the change of ownership of BHA,” said Selectboard Chairman John “Jack” Spanbauer. “In my experience, when a service agency loses its local ties, service suffers.”

A paramedic level service in Northfield, a town of 3,000, could serve as a model to other towns.

It will still take months for the change from intermediate-advanced life support service to the paramedic level, as the department clears the final hurdles.

Fortier first pitched the move to paramedic service last July. At the time, the Selectboard wasn’t convinced that it should go forward with the change. Last month, the department presented a two-year business plan to the board for review.

It was enough to earn the board’s unanimous approval Tuesday.

With the board’s letter of support, the department must now forge agreements with Baystate Franklin Medical Center, its director, and the hospital pharmacy.

Fortier said he’s already spoken to all three, and drawn up drafts of the needed agreements in anticipation of the Selectboard’s approval. The change in service must also be approved by inspectors from the state Office of Emergency Medical Services.

The OEMS requires that paramedic services are staffed 40 hours per week. In Northfield’s case, this will be achieved by having several part-time paramedics, each working a shift or two. While they’re not going on calls, the staffers could perform community outreach services, Fortier said.

The department can’t staff itself before it can pay the part-timers, and there isn’t money in this year’s budget for it. It has been worked into the budget Fortier seeks for fiscal year 2015, though.

The last piece of the puzzle is a stockpile of medicine and a few medical supplies. Fortier estimated that it will cost less than $2,000 to buy the needed drugs.

While the move to paramedic level will cost money, it won’t cost taxpayers.

The EMS Department’s budget and capital funds have come out of an “enterprise fund” for the last three years.

When the department provides treatment or transport, patients or their insurers are billed. Payments go into the enterprise fund, and are used for operating and other expenses.

The annual budget, as well as any capital expenditures, must be approved by the annual town meeting.

While costs will increase with a paramedic service, revenue should as well. When Northfield EMS currently responds to a paramedic-level call, EMTs can stabilize the patient, but hand off treatment to paramedics from another department when they arrive. With the patient goes the payment, and Northfield must still pay its EMTs for the call.

Fortier said Monday-Friday staffing would allow the department to go on more calls, bringing in more revenue. Now, he said, it’s hard to find EMTs to go on weekday calls, as most work full-time jobs.

In the last three years, the department has had a net gain of about $15,000 annually. Excess revenue stays in the enterprise fund, and can be saved for future expenses like vehicles and equipment.

Spanbauer told Fortier that he would like to see a more in-depth capital expense plan, so the department could anticipate when it may need a new ambulance, and put money toward its purchase each year.

“If you maintain the level of excess funds and discipline you’ve had, it shouldn’t be a problem,” Spanbauer said.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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