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Whately EMT director questions regionalization

WHATELY — Since the Whately Emergency Management Department instituted its new shift schedule in April, EMS Director Gary Stone said the department has not missed any calls.

“It’s been working really well,” Stone said.

On April 1, the volunteer EMT department began a new system that has two of its 16 EMTs in Whately on call from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., when most calls typically come in.

Staff pay also increased from $13.94 per hour when an EMT responds to a call to $25 per shift. If the EMT gets a call during the shift and transports a patient, the EMT receives a $75 stipend. If the call comes in during an off shift time, the transporting EMT gets a $100 stipend.

The higher stipends are intended to make it more affordable for volunteers to leave paid jobs to respond to calls. The $100 bonus is intended to increase the incentive to respond to a call during off-time, explained Stone.

The new system is an alternative to the proposed regional EMS system with Deerfield and Sunderland. The Whately EMTs want to remain autonomous and have given the selectmen a choice — an improved town service or regional.

“Since April 1, when Whately initiated this system, we have not had to rely on the mutual aid system for coverage,” Stone said.

The quick improvement strikes a contrast to last year’s numbers.

Town Administrator Lynn Sibley recently stated the town’s EMTs receive about a 100 calls a year. Last year, however, the town’s ambulance responded to only 45 calls. The rest of the calls went to other ambulance services through mutual aid.

The department paid for the initial rollout from April to July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, with $36,000 in annual ambulance revenue.

To cover next year’s costs, the townspeople voted to add $32,165 to the ambulance budget, bringing the amount up to $56,143. Previous years’ budgets averaged $24,000.

The regional service would cost Whately taxpayers $83,138.

After years of leading the department, Stone, who volunteers in addition to owning a private business, said “it was getting harder and harder to make calls.”

Like many towns, the number of volunteers began to dwindle. Work demands pushed people farther from town and a slumping economy forced people to work two jobs.

The proposed regional ambulance service also motivated Stone to revamp the town service.

“When I first started attending meetings to discuss regionalizing over a year ago, it was supposed to be a supplement to each town but the goal has changed and it will now eliminate our current community ambulance service in Whately,” Stone said. “Over the years, it has become harder to rely on volunteerism at any level but that is why we increased our budget to compensate Whately EMTs to keep a ‘volunteer’ service going. I don’t see how it is better to take an ambulance out of a town.”

Originally, Stone said, the three towns planned to staff a full-time ambulance in South Deerfield or Sunderland and keep the individual town ambulances. But last June, a new proposal was brought forth with the help of a consultant, Bruce Baxter. The new plan was to have a 24/7 paramedic-level regional service based out of the South Deerfield Fire District with one ambulance from Deerfield and a ready-reserve ambulance from Sunderland. The first ambulance would be manned by full-time staff, while the second would be supported by on-call part-time employees.

“These are ideas (Baxter) had. We’re not a big city,” Stone said.

This week, selectmen’s Chairman Jonathan Edwards gave the first sign that the Whately selectmen may side with a regional service over the town service.

“I hope we do the regional service. But a lot of information needs to be provided still. There’s still a lack of specifics. We’re working hard to make regionalization a reality. It’s the ultimate goal,” Edwards said.

Stone believes the regional service won’t be enough.

“In Whately, we are trying to offer a suitable ambulance service to the town’s people at a low cost and also trying to keep it a community service,” Stone said. “A regional service can have a lot of benefits, but it should be in addition to a community ambulance service. The regional service will be more expensive, but to me it’s not about the cost.”

First, he said, the town’s response time is 12 minutes, while the regional service goal is to respond under 16 minutes.

According to Stone, a town ambulance can stand by at a structure fire for six to eight hours without depleting resources. If a regional ambulance has to stand by, the on-call staff would need to be called in to staff the second ambulance to cover the three towns. Stone believes “there are many times when all three towns have their ambulances out at the same time.”

Stone worries that the new paramedic ambulance will become the new go-to source for surrounding towns and not be readily available to the three partner towns. He believes the regional service will need added call volume to offset operating costs.

The only way he envisions a regional service would be for the towns to keep their community ambulances and staff a regional ambulance to support one another.

Though the draft agreement for the regional service states all qualified existing volunteer EMTs would be considered first for employment, Stone doubts he will continue volunteering and would drop his basic-level certification.

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

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