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Ira Brezinsky shares the report he authored on the Hilltown Community Ambulance at an informational meeting on April 18.

Reminder Publishing photo by Amy Porter

HUNTINGTON — Local town officials, community members, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel attended the Hilltown Community Ambulance Association’s informational meeting on April 18 in Stanton Hall, largely offering their support to the nonprofit agency.

HCAA board members John Garriepy of Huntington and President Mary Ann Pease of Chester said the purpose was to share findings from a grant-funded report by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission on sustainability for the ambulance service that serves the towns of Blandford, Chester, Huntington, Montgomery, Russell and Worthington.

“2020 was a wake-up call for all kinds of organizations, especially emergency medical services,” said planner Ira Brezinsky, who wrote the report for the PVPC. He also served as interim town administrator in Blandford last year, following the resignation of Christopher Dunne.

He said the board of directors for the 501c3 nonprofit ambulance service has done a lot of hard work and soul-searching over the last two years.

The review by PVPC in the spring of 2023 meant to help them figure out how to make the organization sustainable, to set a baseline on how to provide the best possible emergency medical services at the most reasonable cost, and to save retained earnings to provide paramedic and basic EMT service to the six towns.

Brezinsky said being able to offer 24-hour paramedic service, every day, which HCAA was able to do last year, is quite an accomplishment.

“We believe just because it’s a rural area, they deserve the same level of service,” said Bailey Jones, paramedic and director of the ambulance service for the past two years. He said HCAA paramedics are trained at a higher level than that required by the state.

“Our main goal is to provide paramedic-level care” that covers all three shifts, Jones said, which is more than the required overnight Basic EMT coverage in the agreement with the towns.

Jones said one of the differences between paramedic and Basic EMT care is that paramedics can report back to the hospital en route with an accurate diagnosis, which he said is extremely important.

Garriepy, a retired paramedic who ran the Northampton Ambulance Service for six years, said a Basic EMT has 120 hours of training. A paramedic has 26 months, more than two years of college and hundreds of hours in the field.

“The pay isn’t great,” Garriepy said, adding that his daughter wanted to be a paramedic, and he encouraged her to become a nurse practitioner instead.

Garriepy said the Northampton Fire Department budget is $6.2 million, and it brings in $3.58 million annually in revenue, compared to HCAA’s operating expenses of $650,000 for the last three years.

He said HCAA needs to have money for equipment, such as cardiac monitors, which cost $50,000, and have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years.

“They have one, the other is going out of service,” he said, adding, “Go to the hospital, tell me what your bill is — it’s crazy.”

Jones said HCAA had a 22% increase in calls last year.

“As our population ages, we’re looking at all emergency services in the town and what it takes to keep a volunteer fire department. The challenge is to keep the service going,” said Worthington Selectman and HCAA board member Charlie Rose.

He said neighboring ambulance services are charging $60 per capita, which is the average cost to run an ambulance service. HCAA is increasing its assessments to the towns to $50.20 per capita, up from $35 last year.

Pease said in the past, HCAA would increase its assessments to the towns by 2.5% annually.

“HCAA can’t commit anymore to 2.5%. We are not a town department. We are a vendor to these towns. We’re hoping to slow it down, but we have to get to a fair starting point,” she said.

“HCAA has been making do until now, but has had to make a significant increase in town assessments,” Brezinsky said.

“Our townspeople are old — as old as they come,” he said, a theme he repeated several times during the presentation. The HCAA service area lost 0.6% in population while the state gained 1.5%, and 22.2% of its residents are 65 or older, compared to 17% statewide.

Brezinsky said some of the recommendations in the report included considering switching its financial planning from a three-year horizon to five years, and making the same change for the capital improvement plan.

He said HCAA needs to offer staff benefits, education and training. Its operations center is insufficient, Brezinsky said, and HCAA should consider other locations, such as relocating to the Blandford garages when a new safety complex is built in that town.

Brezinsky said the alternatives are to “keep doing what you’re doing” and making incremental improvements; disbanding, and entering into an intermunicipal agreement with the towns; disbanding, and creating a new governmental organization known as a joint powers entity; or merging the current organization with another local nonprofit ambulance service, such as Highland or Berkshires.

Brezinsky said as HCAA considers what to do, it’s important for the communities to be involved. Pease said HCAA has received another grant through PVPC, and Brezinsky will be continuing to help.

“We need your support at the annual town meetings. You’re the ones who vote on your town budgets,” she said.

“Every one of the members of the board are volunteers. Everyone of us has a heart for this organization. We are very invested. I am a big supporter of this ambulance,” Garriepy said.

Michael Morrissey, chair of the Montgomery Board of Selectmen, said he liked the presentation. He said the Gateway Regional School District has a regional agreement with the towns that requires majority approval, and suggested HCAA look into getting a similar agreement.

Morrissey asked what happens if one town votes down the increase.

Garriepy had no answer. “We’re pretty optimistic, we’re hoping that everyone signs on,” he said.

“If we lose HCAA, there is no other good option. Try to get anyone else in here; you will pay twice as much,” said Huntington Fire Chief Joshua Ellinger.

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