Belchertown EMS: Sometimes the ‘Norm’ Is Not the Best

I have had more than a few part time jobs in my career in EMS one of which was with Belchertown EMS when I lived in that town for a couple of years.  After I moved out of town, the volunteer fire department that ran less than 300 calls a year absorbed an EMS service that ran over 1,000 calls annually.  One thing to realize is that Belchertown is pretty remote.  If a second ALS ambulance responded from another community, the length of that response could be significant.

I remember when the departments combined.  The reaction of many in the community was “Other towns have fire based EMS systems so I am sure that it will work here too.”  The community support for Belchertown EMS was minimal, and their director did not put up much of a fight I would speculate because he was about to transition over into a leadership position within the fire department.  People saw this as a money saving opportunity for the taxpayers.  Consolidate the departments because that was the pattern in most of the Pioneer Valley but what they did not realize is that many of these already established fire based EMS systems were set up by the right people who had an idea of what they were doing.  They recognized the value of experienced providers and stocked their system with not only “home grown” paramedics that their department put through school but people from existing paramedic level services who already had experience.

Belchertown, like most EMS services in the country, was different from anything around it.  Due to the isolated nature of the town and the moderately low call volume (1,000 – 1,500) experience was vital.  Transport times to local hospitals were considerably longer than other systems experienced and it was a frequent occurrence that a tech’ing paramedic might find themselves diving deeper into their protocols than they were used to.  The department itself was set up with a lot of input from a small core of full-time employees that kept the place going which made it easier for Chief Bock from Belchertown Fire to just take over.  Turnouts from the call department were low for most fires, especially during the day, so he felt that the answer was to put firefighters in the station as much as possible to minimize response times.  Belchertown EMS had evolved into a turnkey service sharing a bay in his station, so why not absorb it and its budget and replace its staff with people that better served his mission?

This past week, four paramedics who I know very well were laid off from the Belchertown Fire Department.  they were the last remaining single role EMS providers in the town.  Despite bringing over 60 years of combined EMS experience to the table, the group lost their jobs because they did not wish to be trained as firefighters.  Well, at least not all of them did.  Two of the four had actually inquired with the department’s chief about obtaining fire academy training and they were either turned down or given the run around.  Below is the comment that I posted on the Masslive article that was posted yesterday:

This decision marks the end of one of the few (and best) stand alone EMS services in the Pioneer Valley. I had the opportunity to work for Belchertown EMS when I lived in town in the mid 2000’s when their paramedic level service was in it’s infant stages. While the department was marred by it’s issues it really was one of the best services in the area.

It had a blank canvas. If the field personnel wanted to try something new they could.  If a change needed to be made it was taken care of. Sadly, the town decided to absorb the EMS department into a fire service led by someone who has virtually zero EMS experience.

How does a decision like the one to lay off these four paramedics benefit Belchertown?  I know all four of them personally. Two of them I even precepted when they were “rookie” paramedics. With these layoffs the town is losing around 60 years of combined paramedic experience.  Why? Because the career ambitions of these four people did not line up with 15-20% of the department’s call volume.  That’s right: 15-20%.  Ask Chief Bock.  That is the approximate fire call volume that his department does.  So here you have this experienced group of prehospital providers that is ready and willing to utilize their experience to help handle 80% of the town’s volume and they are being turned away in favor of what will most likely be considerably lesser experienced personnel.

It is a sad state of affairs, actually.  The Chief sold the town on false promises and there are some important questions that the citizens of Belchertown should be asking such as:

How has the fire department’s transition to a paid service reduced the loss of life and property in the town?

How does laying off these experienced providers position the department to improve patient care to the citizens of Belchertown?

Since going to a fire based service, has the town seen an improvement of their CPR save rates or improvements to any measured EMS metric?

Don’t be afraid to ask, people.  This is your life we are talking about here.

It makes me sad to see this department go in the direction that it is going.  They are plagued by small town politics and department leadership that the town of about 14,000 trusts just by default.  One way or another, I feel like this is not going to end well for the town.  they have lost a few extremely experienced providers who were leaders within the department

To my four colleagues who lost their jobs: I wish you the best of luck with everything.  Something tells me that the town will realize what they lost soon enough.

  • Skip Kirkwood

    I know at least one EMS agency that is looking for quality, experienced, single-role paramedics. Check out Durham County Emergency Medical Services on Facebook, or the county HR page at http://www.dconc.gov.

  • BH

    I have trouble wrapping my head around how these types of systems ended up with paid providers in the first place. One agency I work with does almost double Belchertown’s EMS volume with paid-per-call providers working duty shifts.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think they should be paid- I just can’t figure out how they’ve been paid for so long when we were doing that many calls 10-15 years ago and had just recently transitioned to a stipend system.

    The town is so afraid of a union coming in that paid shifts are still years away for us. Full-time is a pipe dream. As in, you need to be smoking something out of a pipe to think it will happen.

    • MedicSBK

      I was not with the department when it went paid, but I would presume that it was due to a lack of volunteers. For a while, many of us who worked the overnight shift (mid-8a) did so on a pay per call basis and spent our nights asleep in our own bed. Shortly after I left, the department went to full 24 hour staffing at the station with per-hour pay around the clock.

      One of the plus sides to them being a paid service was they were able to pull in a lot of very experienced providers from around the area. In an area of the country that was almost 100% paid with a few exceptions up in Franklin County, they would not have been able to do that if they were not paid.

      As for your service that was volunteer for so long, I give them a TON of credit. Sadly, volunteerism is a dying system in most of the country. It is good to see that it is still prominent in some areas.

  • Stbr

    Words of wisdom, I live in town as well and am quite disturbed that the selectmen made this decision so quickly, I watched it on the broadcast and saw no evidence this was just or intelligent. Ive heard currently the shifts of these medics are being filled with overtime. Just how does this save the tax payer money? How will the dept. keep the same level of service? The call dept people that took the emt class had approx 3 out of 12 pass from what I heard. I fear what type of care the tax payers will be paying more money for. I can’t even begin to comment on my feelings of how these paramedics were treated by the town I have made my life in. I’ve lost a great amount of respect for the selectmen.