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Mass. towns ‘scramble’ after ambulance service pulls ALS

Officials say they were given two days’ notice that they needed to look for a new advanced life support ambulance provider

Jan Gottesman
Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

LANCASTER, Mass. — When you need an emergency ambulance, you want to call and have it arrive right away. When the emergency is more than the basic life support (BLS) your town provides, an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance responds.

In Lancaster - as well as neighboring towns including Bolton and back-up to Berlin - that ambulance has been coming from Wood’s Ambulance.

On Thursday, Dec. 5, at 12:45 p.m., Lancaster Fire Chief Michael Hanson received a fax from Woods management that, as of 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 8. the company was pulling its ALS truck from town. Hanson said other towns did not hear until 6 p.m.

Five years ago, the private ambulance company took over the old Lancaster ambulance building on Main Street to dispatch its ambulance in the region. The company’s main facility is in Gardner.

The difference between BLS and ALS is training. BLS is usually EMTs, while ALS is manned by paramedics who can do IVs, give life-saving medicines and pain control medications. According to the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, certain 911 calls require an ALS response.

“We have had no other communication, just two days notice to scramble,” Hanson said.

In response to a request for an interview with Woods EMS Inc. President James Wood, the company sent a press release:

“Due to call volume and utilization of resources, Wood’s made the decision to re-locate our ALS unit from the Lancaster location to our Gardner location. The communities within the Lancaster Service Zone have complex and well thought out response plans to ensure their citizens receive high quality emergency care when needed.

“While we will not have an ambulance staffed in Lancaster, we will continue to finish construction on the current base as Lancaster (on Main Street) ... (Lancaster) and its surrounding towns are communities we are proud to be a part of,” according to the press release.

The temporary solution for Lancaster is that the Sterling Fire Department ALS will cover the entire town until a permanent solution can be found. Sterling currently helps with a portion of town, Hanson said.

“The concern is that they provide ALS for themselves and Clinton,” Hanson said. “Everyone has manpower issues. It is going to be tough.”

Sterling Fire Chief David Hurlbut said he is not overly concerned with staffing at this point.

“We provided mutual aid ALS to Lancaster before Woods staffed a truck there so I do not foresee it being too much of an additional strain,” Hurlbut said. “We were covering the majority of South Lancaster already. Our staffing does allow for us to provide mutual aid ALS when available, to other bordering communities as well, and still leaves us with an ambulance and on-call or other on-duty personnel to staff calls here in Sterling. We maintain statistics to verify there are no missed calls in Sterling due to responding mutual aid to other communities.”

Ayer has offered to help cover north Lancaster. Vital Ambulance has reached out to the town offering to “lighten the load” for ALS service, Hanson said. He is meeting with the Bolton and Harvard fire chiefs to figure out a regional service.

Hanson said that Bolton also uses Community and Patriot ambulances, but that the travel distance is a problem.

“Plus we are spreading the few ALS services thin,” Hanson said.

According to Hanson, Wood’s offered to provide some service from its Gardner facility.

“We are not going to call,” Hanson. “We are not going to sit on a scene for a half hour waiting for ALS to respond.” Instead, the Lancaster ambulance will start the transport and organize another ALS department, such as Sterling or West Boylston, to intercept on the way. Or they will arrange for LifeFlight ambulance to meet them.

“I am confident we will provide the services, but we are stretching resources thin,” Hanson.

Wood’s being a private company, “they have a right to do what they did,” Hanson said, but he said he was disappointed by the poor communication. MCI-Shirley (which is partially in Lancaster) has already reached out about making sure Shirley and Lancaster can respond to medical emergencies at the facility. Having to go through security going in and out of the facility will tie up the local ambulance even more, he said.

The town’s only agreement with Wood’s was an agreement for billing.

Hanson said, a few year’s ago, when Wood’s came to town, some residents questioned the need for a local ambulance with the ALS company in town, but Hanson said this type of problem was the exact reason the town needed to keep its own ambulance services.

“It is sad that they did this by fax,” Hanson said, especially after the company had approached the town to bring the service to town five years ago.

“The crews that worked in Lancaster were some of the best medics I have worked with, and have responded along side us on some of our worst tragedies,” Hanson wrote in a Facebook post over the weekend. “They are professional and brought a level of caring and emergency paramedic care to all of our residents.”

“In 2018 Lancaster responded to roughly 600 ambulance calls with 287 requiring ALS intervention,” Hanson posted. “I am thankful and grateful for the men and women that worked on the (ALS) truck; some great friendships have been made.”

Hanson said he is meeting with the Harvard and Bolton fire chiefs to discuss several options, which could include starting their own ALS service.


©2019 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

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