WEST BROOKFIELD - Area ambulance services are taking a hard, collective look at finding a better way to handle emergency responses in a half-dozen local towns.
The Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission in Worcester has agreed to work with officials from North Brookfield, Brookfield, West Brookfield, Hardwick, New Braintree and Oakham to explore ways of reducing ambulance response time and make advanced life support services more readily available to patients.
Meetings have been held in Hardwick and West Brookfield, with more sessions planned in the months ahead.
Ware Fire Chief Thomas H. Coulombe is also involved, because of his expertise in handling a full-time town-operated ambulance service, according to Janet A. Pierce, regional services and business manager of the CMRPC. The Ware Ambulance Service routinely aids Hardwick, Warren and West Brookfield.
The Brookfield Rescue Squad does the same for neighboring towns there.
Ms. Pierce said Rutland Fire Chief Bradley D. Weber was also at the Hardwick meeting, because Rutland provides ALS service for Oakham.
A lot of area towns depend on private, nonprofit ambulance services to provide emergency care, and some of those services are finding it tough to continue without seeking financial support from the towns they operate in. This is particularly true in Hardwick, New Braintree and Spencer right now.
There appears to be a growing interest in finding regional solutions to local problems, both in area towns and on the state level, in hopes of improving service while cutting costs.
"Ultimately," Ms. Pierce said in a recent interview, "what this study could lead to would be potentially an application for a state Community Challenge Grant."
She said it may be determined through this study that a paramedic, for example, could serve four strategically placed towns if a vehicle was provided for the person with all the needed equipment. That way the paramedic could be contacted by local ambulances and intercept an ambulance on the way to the hospital to provide advanced care to an acutely ill patient.
Ms. Pierce said the four towns involved could then apply for a state grant to
finance the vehicle and/or supplies.
Ambulance services currently provide backup to neighboring towns, or provide advanced life support service if the community does not have it.
Some area towns' ambulances are staffed solely with emergency medical technicians, and those personnel are limited in the care offered during transport to a hospital.
Other area ambulance services offer paramedic capability with ALS, which as the name implies, provides the patient with advanced care such as certain medications and intravenous help.
Ms. Pierce said the key focus of this study, which she estimated will conclude in September, is to maintain the current ambulance services with improvements.
"We really don't want to replace anything that's currently there," she said. "The feeling I got from all of the towns is that they don't want to eliminate the way that they do business. They're looking at what can be done to do it perhaps more efficiently, and maybe on a regional basis by having all of these services help each other out."
The study will review current procedures and how they can be improved. Can the services speed up response time because minutes are critical, especially when someone is experiencing a heart attack?
These towns cover a lot of area, so the study will see if there is a better way to access the three local hospitals: Baystate Mary Lane Hospital in Ware, Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer and Harrington Hospital in Southbridge.
"We're going to analyze all that," Ms. Pierce said. "We're going to analyze the road miles and intercept points (for ALS)."
West Brookfield Selectman Mark A. Long said the towns bordering his hometown are similar to West Brookfield in that they are really spread out, with lots of area to cover, making it difficult for ambulance service to reduce response time.
"Between the towns that touch West Brookfield, there's five or six of us; it's about 140 square miles they have to cover if you were to regionalize with everybody around us. Obviously, that's not going to happen, but you can start by picking a few other communities to come on board for a better service," Mr. Long said.
He said this may be the first study of its kind aimed at improving an important service to the entire area. He backs it 100 percent and hopes the end result will be improvement.
Ms. Pierce said the effort is intended to bring people with a common goal together.
"Most of it's working now, but it's looking into the future to make sure it continues to work," she said.
The study will also determine if it would be worthwhile to share the assets of the various ambulance services, including ambulances and personnel.
Mr. Long said the emphasis has to be on the patients' emergency needs.
"We're looking to get the best service to work with surrounding communities where we don't have to spend a ton of money. Saying we're not going to share services doesn't make any sense in this world anymore."