Conn. EMS company struggles to respond to calls

Data collected from May through Nov. 16 show that of the 338 calls, the company had no crew for 88 of them

By Nate Lynch
The Day

North Stonington, Conn. — Dispatchers often have had to send out-of-town ambulances to local calls because of a lack of staffing at the town's ambulance company since May.

First Selectman Shawn Murphy requested data from the ambulance company over the summer and then from the Town of Groton Emergency Communications, which dispatches for North Stonington, noting at the Nov. 22 selectmen meeting that he was "concerned about getting an ambulance to folks."

Data from May through Nov. 16 show that of the 338 calls, the company had no crew — meaning the call went to a mutual aid ambulance — 88 times, which represents about 26 percent of the total calls. In October, the missed call rate was 47 percent.

But Brian Elias, president of the ambulance company, said new hires have put the company back on track and only a few calls have been missed in recent weeks.

North Stonington is an aging community, with the percentage of residents over the age of 65 growing from 10 to 15 percent from 2000 to 2010. The ambulance company was run solely by volunteers until the early 2000s, when a per-diem, or per-day, payment was instituted, paying members roughly $15 an hour for 12-hour shifts. In recent years, the ambulance company's $265,000 budget has been only enough to guarantee crews for 85 percent of calls.

Officials say the town's transformation into a bedroom community also has led to a declining volunteer rate. Fewer residents work at local businesses or on their own family farms, making it harder for members to respond to emergencies in town during the day.

"Years ago, we used to have volunteers (who) jumped off tractors, came down and drove a firetruck," resident Tim Main said.

Many members of the ambulance company also work several different jobs or on rotating schedules at other emergency service companies in the region, which take precedence over an all-day per-diem shift at the ambulance company.

When a call comes in for medical assistance in North Stonington, a Groton dispatcher calls the ambulance company and attempts to assign the call, explained Joseph Sastre, director of the Town of Groton's Office of Emergency Management.

If the company reports there are not enough staff members to respond, dispatch immediately forwards the call to a mutual aid company. Based on the location of the call in the 55-square-mile town, mutual aid calls are dispatched to Mystic River, Voluntown and Ashaway ambulances, if they are available.

The North Stonington Volunteer Fire Company also has provided assistance at the scene since it was licensed in R-1 emergency medical response this year. R-1 certification allows the company to arrive at the scene of medical calls when an ambulance is delayed and provide help until someone with the ambulance company can transport the patient. The fire department has responded to 87 such calls since May.

Over the summer, the fire department requested that it be given the service area if the ambulance company were to stop operating.

Elias, who is the process of matching the data from Groton dispatch to his own call records, said he agrees that the missed calls have been concerning.

"There's been years with a 97, 98 percent response (rate) ... and years lower than that," he said. Volunteer schedules "depend on a lot of random factors."

Elias said data he collected during the spring show on average the company responds within 6 to 10 minutes, and that's the most important metric.

"You don't care what it says on the side of (the ambulance)," Elias said. "You just care if it gets there on time."

He put out a job posting in the spring, and has added five per-diem members in recent weeks. Since then, the company has missed only a couple of calls, he said, and residents who listen to the emergency radio frequencies in town agree the company's ability to respond has been much better.

Full-time staff would help

When Preston encountered a rising call volume in 2006, that town switched to dual firefighter-EMT paid staff five days a week, and made the chief's job full time.

Elias is in the process of preparing a cost estimate for full- or part-time staff at the North Stonington ambulance company at the request of the selectmen, but he said it likely would come with a substantial increase in costs.

North Stonington Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V said he likes the idea of full-time firefighter-EMTs who could drive both vehicles and assist, but the fact that they're two separate companies would complicate things. He said they've looked into ways around that in the past, including creating a third company with its own insurance policy.

A new building also will hopefully be an important step toward greater collaboration between the companies, Elias and Steinhart said.

"When you're under the same roof, it's easier to share resources and personnel," Elias said.

Bids on the new building are expected to come back in February.

Copyright 2016 The Day

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