Board refines role of FD ambulance, continues regional dispatch discussion

Aug. 20, 2020 | Payton North

HAMPDEN – The Hampden Board of Selectmen met on Aug. 10, with discussions heavily surrounding the Town’s Action Ambulance contract: the assignment of a designee, the review of July data, the appointment of an oversight committee as well as the role of the Hampden Fire Department ambulance.

Interim Town Administrator Bob Markle provided an update from conversations he had with Action Ambulance, explaining that he talked to the company about billing, as Hampden was waiting for their first bill.

“They were a little slow to provide the first bill but we have it now and we have a process for handling that,” Markel explained to the board.

A large portion of the discussion at the meeting revolved around selecting a five to seven member oversight committee to meet on a quarterly basis to discuss Action Ambulance’s quarterly reports and potential issues with the service. The group would also look at the contract and see if there is anything that needs to be addressed with the Board of Selectmen as potential issues arise.

Select board member John Flynn explained he was in favor of a seven person committee, noting that four people on the committee would “always be there,” as they would be town employees. The committee would be made up of a town public safety official, a health administrator, a town administrator, a finance–related town employee and three Hampden citizens who would volunteer to join the committee.

Select board member Mary Ellen Glover said she felt a smaller committee “is more effective,” however Flynn disagreed, stating that she “would be right” if the committee met more frequently, but because the committee was only set to meet four times a year, he didn’t think a larger committee would be an issue.

Ultimately, the board decided on a seven–person committee, with room for three citizen volunteers. Those interested in joining the oversight committee should contact  Markel by sending a letter of interest  to 625 Main St. Hampden, MA 01036.

In discussion with who could be on the committee and who would be the designee, Markel suggested that Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth be involved, as he oversees the dispatch operation.

“He is the one who was advising us six months ago that AMR response times were 20 minutes and above...he’s the one who told us it is four minutes and 20 seconds average response time,” now, Markel said to the committee that Farnsworth “sees that data regularly.”

Board of Selectmen Chair Donald Davenport explained that he “thinks the fire chief [Ed Poulin] is quite capable” of being the designee, and explained he has no desire to “put up negotiations with anyone at any time,” seeming to allude that if selected for the designee position, the individual may want to negotiate their contract for more money.

A designee is generally someone who has been selected to handle a situation or a specific item. In the case of the Action Ambulance designee, that individual would be responsible for receiving quarterly reports from the company, and would “watch out for any problems,” according to Markel.

Glover explained that her “first concern” when having the police chief as designee is that the “police chief would tell us what to do.” She later explained that Farnsworth “is an employee of ours, and if we say that’s part of your job description, it’s part of your job description,” she then said if the individual who is selected to be the designee doesn’t want to do it, then they can resign from their job.

Flynn said that “if the fire chief can do the job, then do the job.” Glover said she felt there is a conflict of interest with Fire Chief Ed Poulin becoming the designee, as the Hampden Fire Department has their own ambulance.

“We haven’t discussed where the fire department is going,” she said, alluding to if the fire department wants to be strictly fire service or eventually offer ambulance service as well. She continued, “but the person in charge of that growth [Poulin] would be evaluating the person already giving the service [Action Ambulance]. To the public, but maybe not to someone, but certainly to me, it seems like a conflict. You’re evaluating a process, a business, that you want to take over.”

Flynn stated that he understood her concern with it, but he has “a lot of trust in the personnel involved.” Flynn then looked to Davenport, stating that he suggests Poulin to be the designee for Hampden’s Action Ambulance contract.

When it came to a vote, Davenport and Flynn voted in favor of Poulin becoming designee, and Glover opposed. The motion passed.

The board of selectmen agreed that they needed to figure out the role of the Hampden Fire Department’s current ambulance. Flynn explained that it is a class one ambulance, and there are “certain things they have to do to get it registered and certified.” Flynn then noted that “the question is, what role do we want for them? Back up role, do they just sit there, what are they gonna do?”

Markel said that the fire department talked about being BLS (basic life support) first roll out, or backup if ALS (advanced life support) was with someone. “That’s something for our board to decide. It’s got to be certified first,” Markel said of the ambulance.

Davenport said that perhaps they would be BLS backup from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week. “Take baby steps,” he said, adding that there would have to be an agreement between Action Ambulance and the fire department. Davenport said he would pursue this conversation with Poulin.

Moving on in conversation, the board discussed the fire department building study. Flynn stated he “really questions some of the facilities they’re throwing out there,” noting that there was a building listed at the cost of $13 million. He explained that the biggest issue with the current Hampden Fire Department building is the exhaust system, and everything else is secondary to that. He then noted that they needed to decide whether there was a “quick solution” to fix the safety concerns. Flynn then stated he was working with Markel to see if there were grants available.

Davenport and Glover both agreed that there is a safety issue with the current fire department building. Glover later explained that she has “a concern about the whole capital planning process.

“I think the fact that you do a study doesn’t, to me, mean that you jump to renovation – you see what the condition is. So this is the condition, proposals were anything from $2 million to $13 million is of concern to me,” Glover said. “The fact that only one of them [the proposals] has an addition to it,” she explained that the other proposals involved completely new buildings. “I don’t know if the town is ready for that, I don’t know if we need that.”

Glover added that “if we weren’t in COVID,” she would be suggesting that there are town forums so there could be more of a dialogue. She also referred to the previous discussion of what the role of the fire department may or may not evolve to be could “lead us down another road. That has to be determined. That seems like a first step,” before finding a location for a new building or looking for money, Glover said.

Davenport said he is looking to set up a public safety program that will take the town 25 years, and he feels the town is “on the verge of that.” He noted the new police station, the ambulance service, the dispatch, and now they’re handling the fire department’s concerns. “If we can get that done in the next three to five years, you’ll be set for 25 to 30 years out in terms of public safety in this town.”

In an update regarding the potential for Wilbraham and Hampden to consolidate their dispatch, Markel explained that Wilbraham would be eligible for an incentive grant if the two towns combined.   

“I would assume it’s up to them to figure out whether that grant is adequate, whether it would be multi–year or not. Without any other reimbursements or fees, it seems as though they would stand to benefit by $150,000,” Markel said.

He later explained that he has received conflicting information from the state. Originally, Markel said, Wilbraham was told they would not receive any incentive money. Now, Markel has been told that they would receive money. Originally, Markel said Wilbraham Town Administrator Nick Breault told Markel that Wilbraham would like to share a portion of Hampden’s savings from the consolidation. Markel explained to the board of selectmen that he told Breault that he thought “that’s going to be tough, because if that’s your bottom line, then WESTCOMM is the better deal.”

“Then it turns out, apart from sharing any savings in Hampden, they [Wilbraham] apparently are going to be eligible for at least one year $150,000 increase from the state 911 office,” Markel said. “We will continue these meetings...I would say at this point it looks as though the WIlbraham option looks more attractive than it did a few weeks ago.”

When Davenport asked if the $150,000 incentive to Wilbraham was for one year or more, Markel said that it was “not clear” if they would receive more money beyond the first year.

“I asked, will the town of Wilbraham be satisfied with that initial sum of money with the consolidation? I didn’t get an answer, but it seems as though they can make that work for a couple of years probably. They haven’t raised the whole issue of sharing our savings again,” Markel said.

As discussions continued, Markel informed the board that “the state really wants the deal to be made...there’s no doubting that over the next few years that the state is going to force consolidation. That’s the reality. We could ignore it,but it’s clear that’s going to happen.”

Flynn interjected, “There’s no mandate right now, but you can see the incentives coming along.” He later added that there will be a decision for the board of selectmen to make – consolidate with Wilbraham, or consolidate with WESTCOMM “for the same amount of money.” He then added regarding the decision making process, “Do we make it [the decision to consolidate] on the board, do we make it a more general polling type thing, or do we get a committee together to find pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages to moving dispatch 10 miles away or 30 miles away? Or, we just leave it here and say we pay this with our taxes in town?” He later said, “But [consolidating is] our way to reduce tax impact on people, which is why we came up with this.”

Davenport brought up the topic of the Hampden Police Station becoming a “dark police station,” and explained that he asked Chief Farnsworth to do a survey of the lobby.

“I asked him to do a month survey. He sent us one week so far, I asked for three more weeks to see what kind of traffic we get there.

“The initial week, there was nobody that appeared in the station after 6 p.m., only one person appeared in the station prior to 8 a.m. and that was to use the bathroom in the lobby. Most of the stuff was to pick up paperwork and gun permits, but we’ll see with the three or four weeks,” Davenport said.

Flynn stated that while he has interest in people being a part of a dispatch committee to delve further into research on this topic, he’s “also not interested in dragging this out for three years.” He then added that he believes this issue would have to be discussed at the Spring Town Meeting, and not Fall Town Meeting in October.

Davenport said he was opposed to deferring the dispatch vote until the Spring Town Meeting. “Here’s my thinking – we talked about that we would make this decision in the fall, and we should stick with that. Also, if we make the decision – we say we’re going to do this or go forward January 1 or February 1, we have money in the account already appropriated to pay for unemployment if there’s unemployment – it’s already there. If we waited until spring, we would have to fund an additional sum of money for any expenses incurred if we close dispatch here.”

Glover stated that her biggest concern was that there “wasn’t enough research,” and “people didn’t have enough involvement in the process.” She then asked if they should put something on the town’s website to have people submit questions. The town is currently working on a list of community involvement opportunities. Anyone interested can subit a letter to Markel or Administrative Assistant Pam Courtney.

Markel also mentioned that they’re looking into agenda management software. He stated that while they are not ready to make a decision yet, they are looking.

At the close of the meeting, the board agreed that they would select the Fall Town Meeting date at next week’s Aug. 17 select board meeting.

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