Colrain Ambulance driven to serve
Gary Ponce, Melinda Herzig, Harriet Dyer and Kevin Worden II are members of the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association Gary Ponce demonstrates how to use a Luca CPR chest compressor. Recorder/Diane Broncaccio Purchase photo reprints »
COLRAIN — On March 5, 2008 — when the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association received its new, $172,000 four-wheel-drive ambulance — Director Gary Ponce challenged ambulance volunteers to answer at least 100 emergency calls in a row, with two or more EMTs per call responding.
Six years later, the ambulance association has responded to more than 1,000 consecutive calls with emergency medical help at any time of day and in all weather.
In a small town like Colrain, with the remotest homes on steep hilltops and gravel roads — rapid response time can be crucial.
“The farthest reaches of our town are about a 49-minute ride to the hospital, in good weather,” Ponce explained. “Luckily not many people live in those sections.”
If no EMT volunteers were able to meet a call, mutual-aid responders from Shelburne Falls or from BHS Ambulance in Greenfield would probably be summoned. But getting an out-of-town ambulance here adds at least another 15 minutes to response time, said Ponce. In responding to severely injured patients, or to someone having a stroke or cardiac arrest, the treatment given during the first hour can make a crucial difference in the outcome.
In an era when volunteer service seems to be waning, the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association has something to celebrate: never missing an emergency call in six years. Currently the association has 18 members who are “volunteers” in every sense: They don’t get paid for their emergency response service. All the money received for transporting patients gets put back into training and equipment, says Ponce.
“All donations and insurance payments all get piled back into the service,” he said.
The 18 volunteers range in age from 19 to 77 years old. And the volunteerism runs in families. For instance, there are three generations of service among the Dwyer family: grandmother Harriet “Belle” Dyer, one of the founders of the ambulance association; her daughter, Melinda Herzig, who is also a part-time police officer, and grandson Daniel Dyer. Ponce’s daughter, Amber, is also an EMT in Pittsfield, he noted. The Kevin Worden family has three EMTs serving with the ambulance association, Colleen and her sons Kevin Jr. and Tyler Worden, while Kevin Sr. is deputy chief of the town’s volunteer fire department.
JoAnne Deady, a school bus driver by trade, has been an EMT with the ambulance association for 36 years.
“I would say we are one of a very few nonprofit, non-paid EMS providers in the state,” says Matt Wolkenbriet, a paramedic and the director of education and training for the association. “The thing that makes Colrain unique is that it’s not only all-volunteer, but is driven by its members toward excellence. They want to provide the highest level of care they can, and have committed to that without compensation.
“It’s not a heck of a lot of fun getting up at 3 a.m. in the middle of a blizzard,” he added. “They’re very service-driven.”
At least two EMT responders are needed anytime someone calls for help. One drives the ambulance, while one or more EMTs tend to the patient. The more responders that respond, the safer it is for the patient, Ponce said. “The more hands, the safer it is for us — because we’re responding to uncontrolled environments, including ice, snow and heat.”
“Aggressive driver training,” says Ponce is an important component. Other items that have helped the volunteers reach their patients include a rescue sled, snowmobile, and use of the Colrain Fire Department’s Kubota.
About four EMTs, on average, respond to Colrain’s emergency calls, he said.
The EMTs train once a month, “depending on what level of material we need to cover,” according to Ponce. But whenever (state) emergency medical service protocols change, they might meet more frequently to learn them. Wolkenbreit said the association was an early champion of Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. “We facilitated the training, with a lot of other ambulance services,” he said.
Besides spending money on training, the association has purchased items that many small-town ambulance services don’t have. For instance, in 2012, the association bought a $14,000 Lucas chest compression system. This CPR machine folds up into a backpack. A patient requiring CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) can be strapped into this device, which rhythmically applies pressure against the chest, sustaining higher blood flow to the brain and heart than manual compression does.
“In addition to providing better compression, it allows us to be seat-belted in the ambulance, instead of standing up, over the patient, in an ambulance going 55 mph,” Ponce said. The machinery can also free up the EMT to perform other life-saving tasks.
And besides answering 1,010 calls, the 18-member, all-volunteer ambulance service will be upgraded this summer to “paramedic level,” which Ponce says is the highest level of service that an ambulance service can provide.
“Paramedic is the highest level in the state,” says Ponce, who, in addition to his volunteer work, is a full-time paramedic, formerly with Baystate Health Systems.
He said the designation gives the responders authority to administer more types of medications, to perform different airway maneuvers and to start IVs. “It’s the highest level of assessment and care that someone can receive outside of a hospital room,” said Ponce.
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 277