NORTHAMPTON - The call came in shortly before noon yesterday: an elderly man complaining of chest pain.
Firefighters Matthew P. Malone and Brett W. Gauger climbed into the ambulance and pulled out of the bay at the Carlon Drive Fire Station. With a quick burst of sirens, a new era in the city's ambulance service had begun.
As of yesterday, the Fire Department ambulance service is the first responder for emergency calls between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. Am-B-Care Ambulance Service, a private company that recently signed a three-year contract with the city, will serve as the backup during those hours.
The reallocation of responsibility marks a milestone for the Fire Department, which began making ambulance runs only three years ago.
As Deputy Chief Timothy E. McQueston explained it, fire departments across the country have been concentrating more on fire prevention and other emergencies as the number of fires has decreased in recent years.
"To maintain enough people, the department has to provide enough service to the community to sustain it," he said.
With the help of a federal grant, the Fire Department purchased its first ambulance three years ago. The town of Amherst donated a second. Today, there are three ambulances in the department's fleet, all of them equipped with heart monitors, defibrillators, medications and other necessities.
The equipment, along with training and overtime for firefighters who staff the ambulance, are paid for by fees collected for the service.
Until the new system kicked in yesterday, Fire Department ambulances responded to about 8 percent of emergency calls in Northampton. The city hopes to increase that number to 50 percent.
All firefighters undergo medical training to work on the ambulances. At present, there are 11 paramedics, 8 firefighters at the intermediate level, and 17 basic emergency medical technicians in the department.
Malone, a paramedic, was the first to enter the apartment where the 78-year-old man and his wife were waiting. Holding a poodle in her arms, the woman explained that her husband suffers from congestive heart failure and had recently been released by Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Malone quickly got the man's medical history, including any allergies and medications he was taking.
Outside, police had arrived, along with a fire truck. It is Fire Department protocol for a fire truck to respond to cardiac calls, along with an ambulance, Malone said.
The patient refused an intravenous line, but Malone and Gauger put him on a heart monitor, strapped him to the stretcher and wheeled him out to the ambulance. On the way, Malone continued to talk to the man as he communicated with Cooley Dickinson by radio.
"You're felling a little more with it right now?" Malone asked. "Okay, I like to hear that. We just want to make you better."
At the emergency room entrance, Malone and Gauger removed the stretcher and wheeled the patient into the hospital. While Malone made out his report inside, Gauger prepared the ambulance for the next run.
"These things always run in threes," he said.
There was another call, but according to the agreement between the city and Am-B-Care, the private service responded. Malone and Gauger headed back for the Fire Station and waited.