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West Stockbridge firefighters/EMTs to walk off the job if services shared with Stockbridge, not Richmond

“Our town decided we would commit to a study; Richmond did not,” said Select Board Chair Kathleen Keresey.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the configuration of the West Stockbridge Fire Department and Richmond Ambulance; specifically, that the former has only firefighters on staff and no emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on the roster, with EMTs provided as staff of Richmond Ambulance. Richmond Ambulance staff have not stated they will quit the department as did West Stockbridge Fire Department members.

West Stockbridge — In a contentious April 11 meeting, the Select Board faced the ire of at least three of the town’s firefighters and emergency medical technicians who said they would quit their jobs should the department split from its ties with Richmond in favor of joining forces with Stockbridge’s team.

“I’m here to inform you that the agreement with Richmond has been working fantastically,” said West Stockbridge firefighter Brooke Wright, who was first in a line of her colleagues to address the dais. “Nobody on our department has any interest in combining or sharing services with Stockbridge.”

West Stockbridge firefighter Brooke Wright was first in a long line of her colleagues to address the town’s Select Board on April 11, asking members to not create a new shared-services agreement with Stockbridge over its current contract with Richmond. Also pictured (at desk): Consultant Jeffrey Blanchard, JB Consulting Group. Photo by Leslee Bassman.

The comment came before Jeffrey Blanchard, of JB Consulting Group, began his presentation to the Select Board and Town Hall guests that included members of the Richmond Fire Department, as well as the Richmond Select Board, with the vast majority of those speaking opposed to any change in the status between their agency and West Stockbridge. Currently, the towns of Richmond and West Stockbridge have a contract to share fire department and EMT services, with Richmond Ambulance’s two paid firefighter/EMTs available Monday through Friday, augmented by paid-per-call EMTs on evenings and weekends. The West Stockbridge Fire Department only has firefighters, with no EMTS on their roster.

According to Austin White, EMS Director for the Richmond and West Stockbridge Fire departments, Richmond Ambulance staffs the EMTs who have not stated they will quit, with Richmond Ambulance including two paid firefighter/EMTs that are deployed Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Their service is augmented by paid-per-call EMTs from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. and on weekends.

Berkshire fire and EMT departments also respond to local events pursuant to mutual aid agreements.

In January, Blanchard discussed his services with the West Stockbridge Select Board, with those services to include providing data-driven analysis of response times given current department configurations, extrapolating that data to other scenarios to see the effect of how a sharing of services with other municipalities could benefit the town. Almost a year ago, he was hired by a joint working group between Stockbridge and Lee to provide a similar analysis. However, Lee moved toward creating a new public safety facility within its borders.

West Stockbridge firefighters, Richmond officials push for continued shared services

Call responses have been running “smoother than ever before,” Wright said of the Richmond and West Stockbridge shared services, with the departments’ teamwork providing “the best patient care and outcome possible.” “This has been a place where, over four years, no problem,” she said. “Shared services [with Stockbridge] will stop and reverse the current course the department has been on. I also want to say that if this agreement does go through with Stockbridge, I will be resigning and joining with Richmond.”

Wright was followed by fellow firefighter Jeremy Knox who said he was “discouraged” with the Select Board for seeking a services agreement with a municipality other than Richmond. He said Stockbridge lacks adequate emergency medical staffing and that the current arrangement has “worked extremely well.” “Responses have improved; there has been adequate training; and friendships have been restored,” Knox said. “Regardless of the study’s outcome, I urge the board to severely reconsider an arrangement like this.”

West Stockbridge firefighters Josh Wright and David Kilmore also vowed to leave the department in favor of Richmond’s agency should a shared agreement with Stockbridge come to fruition. Kilmore said a joint venture between his department and Stockbridge would result in longer response times than sharing services with a Richmond department that “is five minutes down the road.”

“It would be pretty much having to restart the chemistry and work together with Stockbridge and start all over [what] we’ve had for four years with Richmond,” he said, adding that the two departments practice working together on Monday nights.

Richmond Select Board’s Alan Hanson and Roger Manzolini supported retaining the current status between their town’s department and that of West Stockbridge. “I’m surprised that we got to this stage,” Hanson said. “I think this is going to be a very costly endeavor for the towns of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.”

“It befuddles me to know what’s broke,” Manzolini said. “We have gotten to the point where everything is working, better than it has worked for the last 30 years for either town. Nothing’s broke. Everybody’s happy. We’ve got cost-effective, working, very compatible ambulance services.”

He attributed the agreement between the two departments to Austin White who called the cooperation formed between the two towns “a poster child” for shared services. White commented that he wasn’t consulted about the prospect of shared services with Stockbridge.

West Stockbridge Select Board’s position

West Stockbridge Select Board Chair Kathleen Keresey responded, setting the record straight on the session and stating that the meeting wasn’t “an expression of dissatisfaction with our fire department or EMTs.”

“There is a very, very basic misconception,” she said. “This is not, nor ever was, a study chosen to look at joining forces with Stockbridge to the exclusion of Richmond.”

Keresey said she met with Stockbridge officials more than a year ago about issues shared by the small towns, with an eye toward possibly “shar[ing] some solutions.” She said Lee and Stockbridge had considered merging their fire and EMT services, and then contacted Keresey to include West Stockbridge in the conversation. Keresey said her town’s firehouse “is on its last legs” and that its department personnel are “aging out.” With Lee seeking its own facility, Stockbridge officials asked West Stockbridge and Richmond officials if they wanted to work together on a plan, with the meeting that ensued attended by representatives of all three towns, Keresey said, discussing funding a feasibility study for shared services by the trio of municipalities.

“That would be Richmond and West Stockbridge with Stockbridge, not to the exclusion of Richmond,” she said. “Our town decided we would commit to a study; Richmond did not.”

Although Keresey said Richmond declined to pay for the study, Manzolini said Richmond officials saw no need for the study since the Richmond and West Stockbridge departments didn’t have a problem working together, and the distances to travel to Stockbridge being too great.

Blanchard’s presentation; call response times modeled

With Blanchard’s presentation underway, the former fire chief provided three models of data, with conditions and response times for fire and EMT calls in (1) the current shared agreement between West Stockbridge and Richmond and one between Stockbridge and Lee; (2) if West Stockbridge and Stockbridge share services and an ambulance staffed by two full-time firefighter/EMTs based in Stockbridge’s Central Station; and (3) if West Stockbridge and Stockbridge share services and an ambulance staffed by two full-time firefighter/EMTs based in a fictitious substation added on West Stockbridge Road near West Dale Road. The slides can be found here.

The model was based on data from 2022, with emergency calls responded to from West Stockbridge (220 calls), Stockbridge (561), Richmond (209), and Lee (1,400).

Consultant Jeffrey Blanchard (at table) explains the results of his modeling exercise used to determine what effect changing the town’s fire and emergency services program would have on response times and other attributes. Photo by Leslee Bassman.

According to Blanchard, the average call response time in 2022 to West Stockbridge with the current Richmond shared-services agreement is 15 minutes, 44 seconds. That time, per Blanchard’s model, improves to 12 minutes, 53 seconds with a shared-services agreement with Stockbridge based in Stockbridge. Should a substation be created on West Stockbridge Road near West Dale Road under a shared-services agreement with Stockbridge, the response time improves further to 10 minutes, 10 seconds. For Stockbridge, those response times, given the stated models, are eight minutes, 52 seconds; six minutes, 56 seconds; and seven minutes, 16 seconds, respectively.

A model engineered regionally showed similar results for West Stockbridge.

According to Knox, it takes four years from ordering an ambulance to it being housed under the station’s roof, with the Stockbridge Central Station on East Street being the only site to be able to feasibly provide sufficient staffing. Additionally, building a new station would take years, he said, with planning and funding.

Although the state doesn’t mandate a required call response time for municipalities, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Office of Emergency Medical Service provides a reasonable benchmark: 80 percent of all calls must be responded to in 20 minutes or less. That standard is currently met by Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, Blanchard said, with Richmond also meeting that standard if he had their data. However, he said 20 minutes “is a long time” on certain types of calls.

West Stockbridge resident Danny Armstrong noted that the data doesn’t take into account call times during a Tanglewood performance when streets can be blocked by traffic, possibly necessitating a mutual-aid situation and a longer response time.

Other audience members asked Blanchard whether his models, or call response time predictions, for other communities have been verified as accurate and pointed out that some street names are duplicated in several towns, creating confusion if a responder is sent to the right street in the wrong municipality. Kilmer suggested that the data used, from 2022, doesn’t apply to the staffing in Richmond that is now full.

Stockbridge Select Board member Patrick White, who is also running for the state representative seat to be vacated in January by William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D – 3rd Berkshire District), weighed in, attributing his town’s “good” response times to its shared services with Lenox, an agreement that terminates at the end of the fiscal year. Should a mutual-aid department need to respond, he said that call time can be lengthened, a problem for Stockbridge with its population’s average age of 62 years old.

West Stockbridge Select Board member Andrew Krouss pointed out that Blanchard’s presentation doesn’t include a recommendation but only data and modeling.

Member Andrew Potter said he would like to see the town share all its services, including police and school districts, and suggested the Richmond and West Stockbridge select boards meet on the issue. That request was met with a resounding “yes” from the Richmond officials attending, as well as an offer for the towns’ administrators to set up the joint session.

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