Study calls for regional district for emergency services in Southern Berkshire

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's a recipe for trouble.

In rural Southern Berkshire, towns are cash-strapped, and fire chiefs struggle to gather volunteers — especially in the daytime hours.

But an aging and declining population means more emergency calls and less money for paid staff.

"At the hospital, we were noticing that we weren't able to get an ambulance to go to another hospital," said Heather Barbieri, director of emergency management at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington.

To address those challenges, a study was commissioned by the Southern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Commission.

The solution? Regionalize.

State and local officials, as well as emergency responders, packed the Great Barrington Fire Station this week eager to hear the results of the 200-page examination. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, helped deliver state funding to cover the cost of the $43,000 study.

The consultants recommend that Southern Berkshire towns band together and form a regional structure through a fire district, with an independent commissioner and fire chiefs from each town. This would form a central governance that would make paid staffing affordable, which, in turn, would improve response times and create a more sustainable, efficient system.

They also recommend building and staffing some new stations in key geographic locations, and integrating fire and EMS volunteers and staff. There also are a few fixes that won't cost anything, and can be done right away, they say.

But everyone agrees that something has to be done.

"We've got to do something different here, folks," Pignatelli said. "It's ridiculous."

The problem

There are more than a few alarms going off.

Emergency consultant Randall Hanifen, who partnered with consultants William Kramer and Patrick Meyers, emphasized that the county is seeing a rise in emergency call volume and an inability to raise volunteers.

"You are at that point where you need to do something," Hanifen said, pointing to a photo of a sign outside the Egremont Fire Station that said "Urgent. Volunteers needed."

It appears to be the state of things elsewhere, too.

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"Nationwide, what we often have are departments that are apparatus-rich and volunteer-poor," Kramer said. "Better to put more resources in people."

Kramer said that if all that great equipment doesn't have enough volunteers to drive it out of the station, the time to save someone's life ticks away.

The volunteer problem is one that has plagued the area for some time — people have to make a living.

"People need dual incomes; they're running kids to sports," Hanifen said. "And they're physically aging out."

Another problem: lots of road miles between small towns and just a few with larger populations. There also is the increase in costs of equipment maintenance on the region's aging rolling stock, Meyers said.

"The numbers will continue to go up, and the calls for less serious things have gone up," Hanifen added, noting there that there were only 153 actual fire calls in the whole region in 2016.

And Kramer said the region is "underfunded relative to other services."

Start a district

The consultants propose a regional district with a town assessment structure, somewhat like the schools.

There would be a district board, representatives from each town, and an independent commissioner. And they recommend adding living quarters to some existing stations, as well as building new fire and EMS stations in several key locations.

While people might balk at building new, the report said, it's a "mere fraction of the investment in salaries for the personnel which will staff the station over its lifetime."

Estimated capital startup costs for a regional district are pegged at about $4 million, and annual operating costs for a crew of two part-time and one full-time staff would cost about $5.3 million per year, for instance.

Ideally, the region would always have four, three-person crews working around the clock.

Pignatelli said that as with regional school assessments, the question is always, "What's it going to cost me? Towns want consistency. Fluctuations are the problem with the schools."

He wanted to know what would be the minimum number of towns needed for the district concept to work.

"We have to drill down on the finances," he added.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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