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No Day at the Beach for Madison First-Responders

MADISON, Conn. -- The recent fatal lightning strike at Hammonasset Beach State Park brought into focus a growing concern for Madison officials: The town's emergency crews are the first responders to any incident -- major or minor -- at the popular state park, which can be extremely taxing during the busy summer months.

Police, emergency professionals and town officials say responding to problems at Hammonasset is putting a "huge strain" on service manpower.

Town emergency services have been providing first response to the park since it stopped employing its own emergency medical technicians in 2003, park Supervisor Jack Hine said.

"We get called for anything from a jellyfish sting, a stubbed toe, to drownings," said Steve Shaw, chief of service of the Madison Ambulance Association. "Our responses to the park have increased dramatically."

Madison saw how serious those calls can become June 8, when a lightning strike claimed the life of one man and injured four others at Hammonasset.

The man who called 911 that day could not name his location, which made it more difficult to find the injured people at West Beach, Shaw said.

Even so, Hine said, police arrived with a defibrillator within minutes of the incident.

The response was "fairly instantaneous," Hine said, and those who responded to the scene said nothing more could have been done to help Mauricio Bugatti, 23, who died after what may have been a direct hit from a bolt of lightning.

But the tragedy illustrates one of the reasons why Shaw would like to see the state implement emergency phones, so people can pinpoint their location when calling 911.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said response to the June 8 accident was quick and effective.

The park has 18 CPR-trained lifeguards, some of whom were responsible for resuscitating another man injured in the lightning strike, park officials said.

At one time, Hammonasset had as many as four EMTs on staff, Hine said, but eliminated the positions when they were asked to make budget cuts.

Schain said the cuts were due to the changing climate of EMT services.

"The structure of the EMT world continues to evolve and it became something that they're based with emergency response groups or ambulance services, they don't tend to work at a standalone location like (Hammonasset) any more because of regulatory changes, licensing changes and insurance regulations," he said.

Because of this, there are no plans to hire EMTs for the park, Schain said.

While officials agree responses to Hammonasset emergencies -- from lifeguards, park employees and town first responders -- are swift, some are concerned with the toll it takes on town services.

Shaw said emergency personnel responded to 80 to 100 calls at Hammonasset last year.

The ambulance association has one "fly car," a sport-utility vehicle carrying a paramedic, and one ambulance at its disposal, so during busy summer shifts there is often one unit at Hammonasset and one available for the rest of Madison, Shaw said.

That's why he'd like the state to subcontract EMT services for Hammonasset, which serves about 1.5 million visitors annually, he said.

"I think it's essential, with all the people that they have visiting the park," he said. "I think it should be up to the park and the state; (they should have) EMTs or at the very least (medical response technicians)."

Acting Police Chief Robert Nolan said the department has a good relationship with Hammonasset, but also acknowledged the strain on police manpower. The department, authorized for 26 officers, is operating with about 20 cops, including Nolan.

"(Responding to Hammonasset) does eat up a lot of our time, and our officers' time, and we certainly would love to see them have more personnel there," Nolan said.

First Selectman Al Goldberg noted the town not only funds the Police Department, but also pays for operating expenses and purchases equipment for the ambulance association.

"It's becoming a burden on the Madison taxpayers to support a state park that's not adequately provided for," said Emile Geisenheimer, chairman of the Police Commission.

Board of Finance member Fillmore McPherson said he does not know of any financial data that show exactly what serving Hammonasset costs Madison, but said that expenses exceed the amount Madison receives from the state for the park.

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