Colrain paramedic is ‘Hometown Hero’

  • Colrain Ambulance Director/CEO Gary Ponce checks out equipment in the back of the ambulance, Ponce, a 34-year EMT, received a Hometown Hero award this year from the Red Cross of Western Massachusetts. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • Colrain Ambulance Director/CEO Gary Ponce checks out equipment in the back of the ambulance, Ponce, a 34-year EMT, received a Hometown Hero award this year from the Red Cross of Western Massachusetts. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • Gary Ponce, chief financial officer and director of the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

Recorder Staff
Published: 2/22/2017 11:30:28 PM

COLRAIN — After a full day’s work with the South County Emergency Medical Services, paramedic Gary Ponce of Colrain spends much of his spare time running the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association.

“I’m an oddity,” said Ponce, winner of a 2017 Hometown Hero award from the American Red Cross of Western Massachusetts. “Most people would want to run away from this job. People think I’m crazy to do this on my off-time.

“Until I came here,” he said, gesturing at the ambulance service’s modest office in the Colrain Fire Station, “I never volunteered for anything, unless I got paid for it.”

Ponce is the only person from Franklin County to have won one of the seven “Hometown Hero” awards given out this year. He and the others will be honored at a March 17 awards reception in Springfield.

Since Ponce became the CEO/director of the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Association (CVAA) in 2008, the volunteer ambulance service has broken records for never missing a call in a wide, sparsely populated rural region. So far, the volunteer ambulance association has responded to 1,861 calls out of 1,863.

“That’s two calls we missed in eight years,” Ponce said.

The CVAA now serves about 2,600 residents in Colrain and Heath. It also provides primary paramedic intercept services for the Charlemont Volunteer Ambulance Association and mutual aid to other ambulance services in Franklin County.

Ponce, who is from northern California, became an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in 1983, and then a paramedic in 1991. He moved to Massachusetts in 1996 after managing EMT/paramedic services in California. He worked for Baystate Health Systems for 17 years before holding his current job with South County EMS. Ponce is also a 2010 “EMT of the Year” award winner in Franklin County.

The Colrain ambulance association had about eight volunteers at its lowest point, Ponce said, but today the group consists of 25 volunteers.

“Basically, we put everything toward education, engagement and community service,” said Ponce. “We don’t get paid a wage. (Volunteers) get a small fuel reimbursement for their cars. We spend a lot of our money on education: If you’re a member here, you can go anywhere (for education) anytime. That’s a huge draw for us.”

Ponce said the ambulance association pays for the education, and that Ponce was one of the co-founders of Community911 Training Inc. headed by Matthew Wolkenbreit, his friend of many years. “That organization has allowed us to organize all the education needed for being an EMT or a paramedic,” he said. “If they’re not well-trained, the volunteers are going to be reluctant to go on calls,” Ponce explained.

“Without volunteers, you can have 100 ambulances, but if you don’t have well-trained people to drive them, they’re not going to move.”

He said working closely with Colrain’s Fire Department has also been a plus for both groups. “Without them, we would have no home. And without us, they wouldn’t have EMTs.”

Ponce said the Colrain Ambulance, which was mostly paid for with grant money, was a big morale boost for the volunteer ambulance service. “Basically, we paid less than $20,000 for what was a $200,000 truck. We’ve got about $120,000 worth of equipment that’s new since then,” said Ponce.

Training and engagement are important factors, he said. “When we buy something, it’s voted on by the membership. They’re familiar with the finances of the organization. Unfortunately, this is all about money — if you can’t afford to buy gas or train people.”

One issue is that an ambulance service is perceived by health insurance companies as a “transport service,” says Ponce. That means if a paramedic arriving in an ambulance treats a person on the scene, the ambulance service isn’t paid by the insurance companies for responding — because it didn’t take someone to a hospital.

Ponce said he would like to see community paramedicine practices started in this rural region. This would allow paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to provide routine health care services to underserved rural populations. He said community paramedicine centers are cropping up in Michigan, New Mexico and Texas.

“Gary’s nomination for this honor centered on his unwavering commitment to the community he serves, and the people he works with, to accomplish what many people have thought were impossible goals,” wrote Joanne Deady, a paramedic and president of the Colrain Volunteer Ambulance Assoc. “Throughout his EMS career, Gary has not been content to just ‘do the job,’ recognizing that this is a constantly changing field that demands consistent and constant collaboration, education and teamwork.”

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