ADAMS — A recent switch to the Berkshire County Sheriff's 911 Dispatch Center in Pittsfield is creating its own emergency situation for the Adams Ambulance Service and the Adams Alerts volunteer fire department.
Members of both groups told the Select Board there have been significant problems since the switch, which took place on July 1.
"Communications have been horrible," according to Adams Ambulance Service general manager Michael Gleason, who presented a letter detailing many of the issues the service have encountered since the switch to the Pittsfield dispatch.
"Within the month of July, Adams ambulance staff have been made aware on numerous occasions that the Berkshire Control 'response channel' cannot be reached via portable radio," the letter states. "This is the only channel we can use to communicate with our dispatch center. This leaves a severe safety issue for not only providers but is also a detriment to patient care."
Based on a consultant's recommendation, the Select Board voted last December to switch from a town police station-based dispatch service to the Berkshire 911 center, which serves 26 communities. The plan drew vocal opposition from police dispatchers, police officers, and many town residents who were wary of taking the duties out of the hands of local police and the potential loss of dispatcher jobs.
The move was expected to save the town about $1.5 million over a 10-year span, according to Town Administrator Tony Mazzucco.
But the transition also has come with very real costs, Gleason said.
During the response to a fatal car crash in Adams last week, Gleason said communication difficulties meant an emergency responder had to leave the injured person to request assistance from a radio based inside a vehicle because portable radio communications failed.
The disrupted communication was a request for a medical transport helicopter, Gleason said.
In the letter, Gleason provided details of three different calls on three separate dates; in each case, communication snafus led to a delay in ambulance dispatch. In one case the situation involved a 15-month-old child reported as having difficulty breathing. A parent was upset about a 10-minute wait time and transported the child to a medical facility on their own.
"What if that child was not breathing?" Gleason's letter asked.
The letter also describes a situation in which an ambulance was not sent to the scene of a structure fire. And it cited a July 22 case in which the Berkshire 911 center sent a police officer to respond to a medical call.
"[This was done before] sending emergency medical services, and was later determined to be a possible stroke," the letter stated. "As many of us know, there is only a three-hour window when treatment can be done for stroke-like symptoms. This delay in dispatch may have been detrimental to this patient."
Lt. Col. Thomas Grady of the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office acknowledged there were hiccups in the transition. He pointed to the town's decision to push up the planned Sept. 1 start date by two months due to financial considerations.
"We expected glitches due to the accelerated activation," he said. "No calls have been missed; just dispatched a little differently."
Gleason said communication problems are forcing people to wait three times longer than before the switch to get an ambulance. In some cases, because primary and secondary radio alerts fail in notifying Adams ambulance personnel that an ambulance is requested, the calls go to other ambulance services.
"This is a very poor system and I am afraid someone will get hurt," Gleason said.
This increases wait times, Gleason said, and also causes revenue loss to the service.
He noted the ambulance service lost between $13,000 and $18,000 in revenues in one month because of rerouted patient transfers and emergency calls.
And the service has spend about $1,400 purchasing pagers so ambulance personnel can improve communications. The pagers were used or donated, he noted.
He also said the transition was poorly handled with only a few days' notice.
Ambulance personnel were assured that there would be a test period for new system and that communication frequencies would remain the same, Gleason said, yet there was no test period before the system was activated July 1.
Gleason said he provided written communications to the Berkshire 911 center on two occasions detailing the protocols the ambulance system requires.
He told selectmen that he specifically asked for feedback and input about the protocols and added that he was willing to work with the center dispatchers to make changes.
"We've heard nothing about revisions," he said.
Additionally, Berkshire 911 will no longer take calls requesting the ambulance service for patient transfers nor can the service have ambulance service phones forwarded to the 911 service "since AAS is a private nonprofit agency," Gleason's letter stated.
If things do not change, Gleason said he would consider utilizing North Adams dispatchers that work from the city police station.
First Assistant Fire Chief John Pansecchi told the board that radio communication was almost impossible for the fire department.
"With the pagers, sometimes it goes off and sometimes it doesn't," he said. "It's not consistent."
Police Chief Richard Tarsa said that there is a plan to build new infrastructure for a communications tower in the town of Florida, which he believes will correct the issues.
Board Chairman Jeffrey Snoonian appeared very concerned about the situation.
"This goes beyond hiccups," he said.
A meeting to resolve the issues has been set for 2 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall. Attendees will include ambulance service administrators, fire department officials, leaders of the 911 center, Tarsa and Snoonian.
"We will get this taken care of," said Selectman Arthur "Skip" Harrington.