Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, February 2015

To illustrate the limitations of volunteer emergency-response teams in rural areas, Whately Selectman Jonathan Edwards cites a story about a Super Bowl party in his town a few years back. Someone at the party was having chest pains. Among the guests were at least two cardiologists.

“But their ability to really help the person was limited because although they knew what to do, they didn’t have the equipment to do it,” Edwards recalled. “They had to wait for an ambulance, which was part-time.”

One emergency medical technician who lived nearby did arrive soon, according to Edwards, but she could do little without the support an ambulance could provide. While the chest pains were not life-threatening, he said, the lesson was clear.

“We were not providing the needed services to our population,” he said.

Beginning in 2011, Whately, along with the neighboring towns of Deerfield and Sunderland, worked with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments on a pilot program to upgrade emergency medical services. The program resulted in a rarity in the state’s most lightly populated areas: a fully professionalized emergency medical service.

The service, which became fully operational in 2014, grew out of a study commissioned by the Franklin Regional Council that cited several drawbacks to the existing system, including the “continued erosion” of the willingness of residents to serve as firefighters or in other volunteer emergency-response positions. (One reason for the trend, according to Edwards, is that many rural residents now have long commutes to their jobs, making evening volunteer duty less practical.)

With professionalization came a dramatic improvement in response times. In the past, according to Edwards, the wait for help could be as long as 45 minutes, a wait that could prove fatal. And even when emergency response was not necessarily a matter of life and death, lengthy response times could mean a longer recovery.

“Let’s say you’re a single parent and you have kids at home who can’t care for themselves yet and you need ambulatory care,” Edwards said. “And because [the care] is late, you don’t get out of the hospital as quickly. What do you do with your kids? Who takes care of them?”

The Franklin Regional Council study cited several drawbacks to the system the three towns had, including problems with billing and “potential unrecognized liability associated with failure to respond or delayed response.”

According to Ted Harvey, a regional project planner at the Franklin Regional Council, the three towns were chosen for the pilot program in part because they have a higher population density than most of the county’s towns.

Harvey described Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately as providing a good model for more lightly populated towns grappling with their emergency services needs.

For more information, contact Jonathan Edwards at (413) 665-4400.

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