Longer travel times to ER affecting North Berkshire ambulance services


NORTH ADAMS -- With the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital, ambulance services in North County are re-evaluating their resources and turnaround times in the face of longer drives to critical care centers in Pittsfield and Bennington, Vt.

All three ambulance services -- in Adams, North Adams and Williamstown -- are working to minimize the impact of longer drive times, especially for cases like cardiac episodes and strokes that require immediate care.

The extended travel time also increases the need to have enough crews and vehicles on duty to handle emergency calls.

Adam LaPlante, manager of Adams Ambulance Service, said his crews had to seek aid from a nearby ambulance company on Saturday night because three calls came in rapid succession. Another service had to handle one of the calls because of the extended travel time to Berkshire Medical Center.

"If it's a life-threatening call then that is an issue because of the added drive time to BMC," LaPlante said. "So we are putting extra staff on -- we have a third (ambulance) unit that we will staff for high volume times."

He said the service fielded 20 calls over the weekend.

Adams Ambulance typically has two vehicles and crews on duty, but now it's beefing up, LaPlante said.

The only emergency room in North County was located at North Adams Regional Hospital, which closed on Friday. Efforts are ongoing to reopen the emergency treatment center as a satellite to Berkshire Medical Center because it is so far to other critical care locations.

According to Paul Hopkins, former spokesman for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, the company that owned NARH, between 40 and 70 patients were treated in the NARH emergency room every day, with more than 100 patients in one day being the record high.

Stephen Sheppard, an economics professor at Williams College, said the result of a longer travel time for emergency treatment will likely result in an increased mortality rate. Sheppard and some students are in the midst of conducting a study on the affect of treatment locations in relationship to mortality rates.

"We find that an increase in distance does harm health and there is increased risk" of mortality, Sheppard said.

Village Ambulance, which serves Wiliamstown, New Ashford and Hancock, has also beefed up it equipment and staff, but had already done so by the time the hospital closed. It was already seeing an increase in service calls.

But now that drive time to a hospital is so much higher, the increased capacity will come in handy, noted Shawn Godfrey, general manager of Village Ambulance. And now, for each call, a determination has to be made which hospital is more suited to the patient, Berkshire Medical Center or Southern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.

Godfrey said the average trip to NARH took 12 minutes, while for BMC it is 25 minutes and 18 to 20 minutes for SVMC.

"Just because of the increased distance, [an ambulance] will be out of service for a bit more time," he said.

John Meaney, general manager of the North Adams Ambulance Service, said today's ambulance crews are trained and equipped to stabilize critical patients thereby speeding things up for the emergency room treatment, but there is still an increased risk for certain emergency medical patients.

"There is a lot of stuff we can do," he said. "But for some things, time is of the essence."

North Adams Ambulance is expecting delivery of a new ambulance in the next couple of days, allowing the service to increase its fleet to five ambulances. Before NARH closed, he noted, there would be three trucks on duty in the daytime, and two trucks in the evening and overnight. Now, the company keeps four vehicles and four crews on duty 24 hours per day.

"We're trying to gauge what the need is now," he said. "We may scale back if we need to. We're going to evaluate it and make it work."

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