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Fate of South County’s EMS departments pushed off

SUNDERLAND — The emergency medical services departments in Whately, Sunderland and Deerfield will have to wait six more weeks to learn whether they will be partners in saving lives.

A consultant, Bruce Baxter of Bruce Baxter and Associates of Haverhill, has requested more time before submitting his recommendations to the Regional EMS Committee charged with developing a plan to combine the three town’s departments.

The deadline extension will enable the three town administrators — Lynn Sibley of Whately, Bernie Kubiak of Deerfield and Margaret Nartowicz of Sunderland — to match possible budget costs to real figures.

“We’re hesitant to release the details until the town administrators look at and finalize the numbers,” Baxter said. “We have come close to a model we believe works, but we’re still six weeks away from the proposal. We’ll come to you with an approach that will have consistent high level of care. We want to make sure we get it right and it takes time.”

The Regional EMS Committee has been meeting twice a month since the three towns agreed in June to explore combining ambulance services in an effort to quicken response time and provide better service to patients.

In planning for a regional ambulance system, the towns have to consider response time, the distance traveled, manpower and skill level of responders. They will also have to take into account the 69 square miles the proposed service area would cover with a population of 10,184.

In the end, if the towns agree to join forces, it will be the first regional EMS partnership in Franklin County.

In deciding which direction to take — to remain separate departments or to combine resources — the three towns will have to weigh costs against the quality of care.

“This proposal will not be cheap and it won’t be a Cadillac. It’ll be a Chevy or a Jeep,” Baxter said. “It’s a value judgment everyone needs to make. It may be that you choose not to move forward.”

Although the proposal will have costs compared to the existing volunteer on-call system, Baxter said it will improve response time — a factor the three selectboards stressed as critical.

“If you stop breathing, I have six minutes to get to you before you start losing brain cells,” Baxter said.

Right now, it takes 18 to 21 minutes from the time a person dials 911 to the time an ambulance crew shows up at the door in the three towns.

“Things are OK right now, but we’re trying to take this to another level before things break,” said Deerfield Town Administrator Bernie Kubiak. “If you look at the volunteer rate, the equipment, it’s fragile. “Eighteen to 21 minutes doesn’t seem long, but when I get a call from a grandmother who’s 18-month-old is having seizures ...”

The problem with a system reliant on volunteers, Baxter said, is many people are no longer available to help.

“The economy is such that people are working two to three jobs. They have less time and have to travel further distances. Your system is at the cusp of failing,” Baxter said.

The friction between costs and care rose to the forefront for the town officials who will ultimately make that decision whether to move forward.

Though Whately Selectman Jonathan Edwards argued for the importance of improved care, he stressed the role costs will play in the final decision.

“I’m concerned at what it’s going to take away from what people see as an immediate need in the town. To parents, books are more important,” said Edwards. “What the final dollar amount is an important data point to the discussion.”

Sunderland Selectman Thomas Fydenkevez fell on the other side of the scale, arguing “if it’s a worthwhile program, the costs will take care of itself. Cost is a factor, but not an overwhelming one. We shouldn’t just focus on costs or we miss the whole concept.”

The towns are also determining the location of a possible central EMS station. Baxter said the committee is analyzing local geographies to find which location would provide the quickest response time for people living throughout the towns’ borders.

The three towns are working with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which is funding the study with a $15,000 grant from its district local technical assistance fund.

Ted Harvey from the FRCOG said the grant will last until the end of December. The COG plans for the consulting work to be completed before the grant runs out.

After December, the next steps in deciding to move forward or back out is up the three towns.

The three town selectboards will likely meet Nov. 14 at the Deerfield Town Hall to hear the final proposal.

Kathleen McKiernan can be reached at:
kmckiernan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 268

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