My Turn: Ambulance staff request last shot for service

Athol Town Hall

Athol Town Hall STAFF FILE PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

By KEN DUFFY

Published: 03-21-2024 6:16 PM

 

On April 1, the voters of Athol will have a very important override question on the ballot for their consideration. This question concerns adding staff — three EMT/medic/firefighter positions — to the Fire Department. A fourth position will be added with available funds through the FY25 budget process.

Last spring, voters at annual Town Meeting passed an article adding eight positions, pending voter override approval, to help maintain the municipal ambulance service as it exists today. The override vote in July to ratify the Town Meeting passage failed to get the needed support of the voters.

Following this rejection but realizing the issue of adequate staffing for the department and its services, specifically the ambulance service, still needed a resolution, the Select Board formed an advisory committee to come up with a plan to try to save the ambulance service as we know it.

After review of all available information, the decision was to recommend to the Select Board a hybrid approach to help solve the issue. The advisory committee is now recommending that four positions be added to the department. Three of these positions would be through the override process and one position would be added through the normal budget process.

While the committee can justify the need for eight positions as previously recommended, we realize that many voters found this added amount, at one time, simply too much. By reducing the number of added positions being recommended to four, we can stabilize the department (and the ambulance service), while at the same time greatly reduce the impact to the taxpayers.

The previous override proposal last year would have added approximately $200 to the average real estate tax bill. This new proposal will add a much smaller amount, $61, to the average tax bill, a much more realistic increase.

The understaffing of the Fire Department has been a known issue for many years. In 2010, the town Finance Committee produced a detailed report on the staffing issue, specifically as it relates to the ambulance service. At that time, the recommendation was to add six members to the department. For various reasons over the years, this recommendation was never acted upon.

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We are now at a tipping point, where a decision must be made to either take the needed steps by adding staffing to stabilize this situation, or make unwanted but needed changes to remove or downsize the ambulance operation.

The reality of the situation is more calls are being received for an ambulance each year. With the addition of the North Quabbin Commons shopping center and a growing population, the need for a dependable, well-staffed ambulance service is critical. During the past year, there were almost 500 times that both municipal ambulances were out on calls simultaneously.

Most people fail to realize that our Fire Department staff not only responds to fires, but also staffs the two running ambulances as well. All staff members are certified to work as a paramedic or EMT as well as a trained firefighter. The department also does various inspections and runs educational programs as well.

The Athol Fire Department ambulance service is certified as both an ALS (Advanced Life Support ) and a BLS (Basic Life Support) service. Having an advanced life support service certification allows our town service to take advanced steps to help those in critical need as they are being brought to the hospital. It can mean the difference between life or death.

This will be the last request to get the needed personnel to ensure the town continues to provide a municipal ambulance service. We understand that times are not easy. We heard the voters last summer. The plan being recommended reduces the cost to the taxpayers from the original request while ensuring we can continue to offer a municipal ambulance service.

None of us want to think we will ever need an ambulance but the reality is, at some point, we or a member of our family, a friend or a neighbor will. Knowing that help is only a call away is comforting to know. We ask your support of the Athol ambulance question at the April 1 Town Election.

Ken Duffy has been involved in local town government for over 25 years and is currently chairman of the Athol Fire Department Staffing Advisory Committee and the chairman of the Athol Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee.