Selectmen Henry 'Hank' Sayers said his idea would be to mimic what is done in the city of Pittsfield with the town's response to calls.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen have a proposal to privatize the ambulance service. But the Fire Department, which runs the town's volunteer ambulance now, is fighting to keep it.
The town's ambulance service has been facing tough financial times for the last few years and slowly depleting its reserves.
Selectman Henry "Hank" Sayers recently reached out to County Ambulance in Pittsfield about a service contract and the for-profit service agreed to provide 24-7 coverage at no cost to the town. County Ambulance would receive the income from insurances and patient billing associated with each ride.
"Our idea originally was when an ambulance call came in, the police, Fire Department, and County would be dispatched all at the same time, with Lanesborough Fire responding with a rescue instead of an ambulance," Sayers said.
The model is somewhat like the city of Pittsfield has and the emergency medical technicians on the Lanesborough Fire Department would still act as first responders when available, passing on the transportation to the hospital aspect to the private company. County would be sending an EMT and a paramedic, bringing in an additional level of skill than available in the town's service.
Sayers estimates that 75 percent of the town's calls are already being handled solely by County Ambulance because of a shortage of volunteers available in town to respond.
"They only were responding to 25 percent of the calls and County was already doing the other 75 percent of the calls," Sayers said. "The way it is set up right now is a set of tones go off for our town ambulance. Two minutes later another set of tones go off and they wait a couple of minutes. If nobody signs on for a response then they dispatch County. So it is a four-minute delay before they dispatch County."
Town Manager Paul Sieloff said County initially proposed a three-year contract, but settled on doing it for three months instead as a trial. But that also means the Lanesborough Ambulance Service will be parking its vehicle for that duration.
"There is still a role for the Fire Department EMTs if this were to go forward in that they would race forward with the rescue truck to the site and stabilize the patient. They may be able to get [more volunteers to respond] if they know they will just have to go to the site and they don't have to spend as much as an hour and a half going to the hospital, cleaning out the truck, filling out the paperwork, and all the computer stuff. They are there just to medically get there and offer their skill set to the people in need," Sieloff said.
The issues plaguing the service recently is a combination of unpaid bills and the number of times volunteers are unavailable to take calls. Fire Chief Charlie Durfee says there are only six EMTs on the department and work and family obligations often lead them to be unavailable, thus missing opportunities for additional revenue.
"People aren't paying their bill. We have like $50,000 in unpaid debt from people who aren't paying their bill. We are getting out of the door the best we can. We are a small town, pretty much six or seven EMTs take the calls, we get out of the door as much as we can. But people aren't paying their bill," Durfee said.
Those two financial forces have been working against the service over the last few years. Just to offset operations, the service has dipped into its reserve funds to the tune of about $10,000. At that rate, there is only a few more years left before it would have to ask the town to contribute to keep it going. And that coincides with the time when the town would be needing a new ambulance at a cost of somewhere in the $230,000 range.
"The ambulance is going to have to be replaced and those ambulances are very expensive. If they are only getting modest use, 20 percent of the time, that is a big investment for the town," Sieloff said. "We don't want to eliminate EMTs. They are valuable at an ambulance call, at fire calls, or an accident, to have people with that level of skill above a first responder is very helpful. I'd like to have as many EMTs over there we can get."
EMS Deputy Chief JD Hebert believes the service can turn things around and is hoping for a little more time to show that. One aspect could be adding additional EMTs to the roster, a move Sieloff says would cost the town minimal. The insurance cost is around $500 per person. But, that is also if the town has volunteers willing to join on as EMTs.
"I believe in the potential of our department to get better at what we are doing," Hebert said. "I believe our system works and I believe it should not be touched."
PJ Pannesco said the department doesn't want the issue to lead to anger between the Selectmen and firefighters, or between the firefighters and County, but he does hope to have a chance to save the town's volunteer ambulance service.
While firefighter PJ Pannesco reminded the Selectmen that while the service has dipped into its own reserves, it has yet to ask the town for additional help. The Lanesborough Ambulance Service is funded through an enterprise fund from revenues from the transports the volunteers do make.
"The town is not losing money. The ambulance is paid for. We provide the service as volunteers," Pannesco said.
But the day when the taxpayers will be asked could be coming, and coming sooner rather than later. Sayers estimates the option of turning it into a full-time service would cost the town in excess of $300,000 a year, which may be too much for the town's coffers.
The contract with County went before the Board of Selectmen on Monday night and a large number of firefighters packed the Selectmen's office in opposition to the move. The Selectmen responded with high praise for the work the first responders do and set a meeting for next Tuesday to sit and meet with the department about the issue.
"I don't agree with getting rid of the ambulance all together," said Board of Selectmen Chairman John Goerlach.
While Sayers said, "the ambulance squad has been doing an excellent job when they respond. There has not been a single resident left out in the cold."
Next week, both sides will come together in hopes to find a solution. The Fire Department will present ideas to improve the system they have. Selectman Robert Ericson is asking for a "comprehensive" look at the issue from both sides.
"I would like a visual in how this is all going to play out and the names and quantity of people to make whatever it is happen," Ericson said. "I would like to see a whole comprehensive picture of what we are talking about."
Resident Dominica D'Avella called on a similar analysis including effects on response time, any proposed alternatives, the long-term impacts on the service. And she wants the public to be part of the discussion, adding that she believes the majority of the residents would be supportive of subsidizing the service somewhat to keep it going if needed.
Durfee called the whole "tough situation" and sees both points of view. On one hand, the town's taxes are a concern. On the other, the town has a group of dedicated volunteers working hard to keep the residents safe. But whether those two sides can come together is yet to be seen.
"Our guys want to keep doing it because it is their heart and soul. That's what we've always done and that's what I've done for 36 years on the Fire Department. [The Selectmen] are looking at the money aspect," Durfee said.
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