For Northampton Residents
Shrinking Ambulance Options
Raise Some Costly Questions
By Edward Shanahan
News that the AmB Care ambulance service is pulling out of Northampton this summer raises some troubling questions about finances, public safety and judgment.
Then the Northampton Fire Department, step by covert step, started edging into the picture, first buying a single ambulance, then two, and then a third, and finally started to complement, or rather compete with AMR.
Even though the track record in most communities has found that a fire department ambulance service is costly to operate and usually runs at a deficit, city officials, including Mayor Higgins and Fire Chief Brian Duggan promised that having the city involved in providing ambulance service in concert with AMR was a “win, win” arrangement. How many times have we heard that catch-all phrase to describe questionable decisions?
Sure, additional firefighters/EMTs had to be hired for provide coverage, but that cost would be covered by the non-emergency payments that the Fire Department would generate by taking on the paying customers who needed to be ferried to doctors and hospitals for appointments.
When it appeared that AMR was failing to measure up to its responsibilities, steps were taken to pull the plug on a full-time service from AMR and to switch to AmB Care. Thus, a contract was signed with the new firm.
At that point AMR hung around for a several months, still occupying space and parking its fleet of ambulances at its headquarters in one of Eric Suher’s buildings off Bardwell Street, south of the bike path in Florence.
With the Fire Department and AmB Care now sharing responsibilities for city coverage, for a few months the city had the coverage of three services, something of a luxury for a city of 26,000 residents.
Then, AMR left town for good and AmB Care and the Fire Department carved up the available business—the city taking calls during the daytime hours, and AmB Care covering nights and weekends. But it soon become clear to AmB Care that this was not working for them, because the Fire Department was getting most of the lucrative part of the business.
Finally, the inevitable happened, AmB Care has decided it can’t afford to fulfill its part of the arrangement and will pull out in August, leaving the city solely dependent on Fire Department personnel and emergency equipment for all emergency and non-emergency service.
And that is where the problem lies. An ambulance service is labor intensive, requiring coverage 24/7, which is costly in terms of both manpower and equipment.
The shift of the total responsibility to the Fire Department probably is welcome to Fire Chief Duggan, who has earned a reputation for being something of an empire builder, increasing personnel, adding equipment, getting hefty pay increases and requiring a bigger annual department budget increases.
But the economic landscape for cities and towns has changed drastically in the last year, and certainly since the city began working its way into the ambulance business, which required a larger rather than small department.
All budget discussions for the next fiscal year are proposing large reductions in municipal personnel, in the schools, in the police department, and finally among fire personnel. Some City Hall projections have called for a reduction of 10 to 14 positions each in the two public safety departments.
In the wake of that reality how will be city muster the manpower and the money to provide round-the-clock ambulance service in addition to providing adequate, reliable, afforabable fire protection for its citizens?
We await that debate.
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