Hamilton, Wenham

Selectmen reopen police regionalization talks

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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By the time the dust settles on the police department's no-show EMT training scandal, there may be no police-run ambulance service in town, and possibly no independent police department.

Earlier this month, selectmen in Hamilton and neighboring Wenham reopened talks about the potential regionalization of the towns' police departments.

"This has been something we've considered in the past," said Hamilton Selectman Bill Bowler. "The conversation will be ongoing."

When the regionalization concept was raised five years ago, two of the reasons for dropping the idea were staffing overlap and the fact that Hamilton police ran the town's ambulance service.

Chief Walter Cullen's retirement and the recent resignation of Sergeant Donald Dupray has left the Hamilton Police Department with two fewer officers. The town is in the process of searching for a chief.

If the town's Emergency Medical Services Planning Committee comes back with a report favoring another form of munici pal ambulance service, that might eliminate another potential obstacle for regionalization. The advisory committee is scheduled to report on the town's best options next month.

Both towns are among 13 municipalities that will be served by a regional emergency 911 call center to be built in Middleton, announced last week. The center is expected to open in 2010.

It's been a season of change in Hamilton, where residents will face a May 4 Town Meeting vote on revisions to town government that would increase the Board of Selectmen from three members to five, and switch from a town administrator to a town manager. In addition, the Department of Revenue this spring is due to report on further regionalization between Hamilton and Wenham, or the possible outright merger into one town.

With those big issues on the table, discussion of police department changes probably wouldn't be occurring now if not for the September report by the state's Office of Emergency Medical Services that police officers were signing up for EMT recertification classes that were only partially held or not held at all. In addition, an investigation found the department had mishandled grant funds, leading to Cullen's suspension with pay prior to his retirement at the end of 2008.

In September, the town stopped ambulance runs from the police station, turning all calls over to Lyons Ambulance Service, which had previously handled the town's advanced life support calls while the police department ambulance handled basic life support calls. In December, the state revoked the licenses of several Hamilton EMTs, as well as the town's ambulance license for at least a year.

The town appealed the decision, but when it formed the Emergency Medical Services Planning Committee in January, there was an agreement to wait for the recommendation of the advisory committee before deciding how to proceed with ambulance service.

"This is clearly a good time to look at it," said Richard Low, Board of Selectman chairman.

According to the Department of Public Health, there are only three municipal ambulance services run out of police departments in the state: in Billerica, Mattapoisett, and Tisbury. Of those, the Billerica ambulance is run as a separate service, under the administration of the police department.

In most cities and towns that have a municipal ambulance service, it is run out of the fire department.

"From my perspective, running an ambulance service requires a lot of attention, training, and understanding of treatment protocols," said Patrick Roselli, chairman of the town's Emergency Medical Services Planning Committee. "[The fire department] is a more natural fit."

Bowler noted that the ambulance service had been a back-burner issue for years, but the town had received positive feedback from the public, and operated under the assumption that with billings of more than $150,000 annually, the service made money for the town.

In fiscal year 2008, the department received an estimated $172,765 for ambulance service. Over fiscal years 2006 and 2007 - the two years examined by the Office of Emergency Medical Services in its report - the town received more than $300,000 for ambulance calls, according to Deborah Nippes-Mena, finance director.

"It's always seemed like the ambulance was a net revenue producer for the town, but there's never been a formal study from a real cost-accounting standpoint," Bowler said.

Roselli said the financial benefit will be considered by his committee, which consists of representatives of the Finance and Advisory Committee, Board of Health, fire, and police departments, Council on Aging, and four citizens, including a physician. Among the expenses of running the service are additional stipends paid to officers for EMT training, materials, fuel, insurance, fees, and the cost of the ambulance itself.

Roselli said his committee will review three options: a municipal ambulance service run by the fire or police departments; a private ambulance service handling all calls; or a hybrid arrangement in which some calls are handled by the municipal ambulance service and others by the private service.

"Those are really the three choices every town has," said Roselli.

Roselli said the recently announced regional emergency 911 call center would not have any influence on the committee's decision process. He added that the consolidated training, new technology, and experience gained from greater call volume in a regional dispatch center would benefit residents.

"It's certainly not going to negatively impact EMS service in the town going forward," Roselli said. "It can only help it."

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