Budget cuts hinder emergency medical care for Amherst Fire Department

By Michelle Williams

During the second weekend of the University of Massachusetts’ school year, a record number of emergency calls were made with over half involved in alcohol from locations across the Hampshire County.

From Friday September 18 to Sunday September 20, approximately 48 calls were made to emergency services, 40 of which prompted ambulance visits. Over half of the emergency medical transportation services were alcohol related, with many individuals underage. Taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton over the weekend were 15 UMass students and three Amherst College students.

With the volume of calls requiring an ambulance within a three-hour period reaching 14 incidents, Chief Lindsay Stromgren of the Amherst Fire Department said he cannot remember the number of emergency calls ever reaching such heights. With a budget cut of $120,000 the Amherst Fire Department has been forced to stop staffing up to eight on-call emergency medical technicians on their busiest nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. With only seven on-call EMTs the Amherst Fire Department is only able to staff three ambulances rather than four. This shortage often forces Amherst town officials to call neighboring towns for help, causing large delays. Feeling overwhelmed by the constant urgency, Chief Stromgren expressed in a statement to the town as to what had happened and how the budget cuts have constrained the Fire Department’s ability to respond to medical emergencies. He said that he hopes this situation focuses attention on how thin their resources are being stretched.

When needing further medical attention, students and community members are taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital of Northampton. Dr. MD R.F Conway, medical director and chief of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson said that while the hospital is prepared during the school year an extra physician was still needed to be called in due to the unprecedented volume of emergencies. This forces other patients to wait to be seen during potentially crucial moments. It also requires an extra bed, as it is the policy of Cooley Dickinson to keep those with alcohol related maladies overnight.

Many suspect the rise in emergency medical calls are due to the University’s implementing of the Good Samaritan policy. This allows students who suspect individuals may be severely intoxicated to receive medical attention without fear of University or judicial consequences.

Ed Blaguszewski the executive director of news and media relations at University of Massachusetts said, “We do not want students to hesitate when they believe someone may be suffering from an alcohol overdose.”

He added, “While prevention of such situation is our first priority, they do occur, and everyone wants to avoid potential tragedies.”

Such care can be expensive, with a hospital bed for one student costing $1200 before insurance.

A freshmen student, who had asked to remain anonymous, recounted the time when she had been rushed to the hospital.

“I didn’t want to be taken to the hospital,” she said. “I would have rather just been put to bed. Luckily I have the student health insurance plan, otherwise I don’t know how I would have paid for my room.”

The University hopes that with education, the need for medical attention can be prevented.  Students who have been caught underage drinking by authorities are required by the University to take an alcohol abuse course, Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students, otherwise known as BASICS.

The need for students to be taken to Cooley Dickinson may in part be due to the limited hours of the University Health Services (UHS) which provides walk-in care. While walk-in care is available 8 a.m to midnight seven days a week, it is no longer open 24 hours a day. Instead there is an emergency on-call service team available by phone for advice. While Blaguszewski said he believes the limited hours of the UHS is unrelated to the increased amounts of students taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Chief Stromgren said the Fire Department is unsure how much of a factor the limited hours are on the weekend’s emergencies. He will be meeting with UMass representatives to discuss this issue next week.

In response to the events of the second weekend of September, the University released this statement “We will be looking at the details and circumstances of the weekend to see what we might learn from them. Overall, we believe the University has a strong program of education, prevention and enforcement that has made substantial progress on this issue in recent years. However, we must remain vigilant and continue to work hard on preventing alcohol abuse among some students, which is an issue faced by colleges and universities across the country.”


Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected].