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Ambulance response time criticized after house fire

Fire staff doubles as town's EMTs

By Julie Masis
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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Two people were seriously hurt in a house fire in Shirley earlier this month, less than a year after the town laid off half its full-time firefighters. And while the firetruck responded quickly, neighbors who helped the victims escape the blaze are questioning why it took longer for an ambulance to arrive.

"The poor woman was sitting in the snow for at least 20 minutes before the ambulance even showed up," said next-door neighbor Kailee Higgins, who helped pull Patricia Potter, 57, out of her burning apartment on March 5. "All her clothing, her hair, and her eyelids were burned. We started throwing snow on her so we could put the fire out."

Dwight "Mike" Detillion, Shirley's ambulance director, agreed the ambulance did not get to the scene as quickly as the firetruck.

When the town laid off half its six firefighters last year, Detillion had warned residents the ambulance response time would double because firefighters in Shirley were also the town's emergency medical technicians. Had there been no layoffs, he said in a recent interview, the ambulance would have arrived at the March 5 fire scene at the same time as the firetruck.

Instead, when the firefighters on duty took the truck to 276 Great Road, there was no one left to drive the ambulance. The town had to summon its on-call ambulance crew, which meant Detillion had to leave his job, rush to the fire station to get the ambulance, and find another on-call person to go with him, per regulations.

"Given the fact that it's a weekday, most of the on-call folks work out of town and they're not available," he said. "That's why we rely on mutual aid, [but] mutual aid is coming from a further distance."

Michael Holohan, another neighbor who helped the victims to safety, said if the ambulance had arrived sooner, its attendants "could have helped the woman more than they did, instead of letting her burn and be in pain."

Holohan said that, by the time the ambulance arrived, he saw that it was 10:50 a.m. on his cellphone - 24 minutes after the Fire Department reported receiving a 911 call about the fire. During the wait, he said, Potter was screaming in pain. She remained in serious condition at Massachusetts General Hospital last week.

Detillion said his ambulance arrived five minutes behind the firetrucks. "It feels like 20 minutes when you're standing there waiting in an emergency," he said, declining to release the time logs from that morning.

An ambulance from Townsend, seven miles away, arrived after the Shirley ambulance to take the second victim, Arthur Antonelli, to the hospital. It was another 17 minutes before Potter was taken to MGH because it was determined that a helicopter could not be used. .

As bleak as the situation was on March 5, Shirley Fire Captain Joe Hawthorne said it could have been worse. Because of the layoffs, the town's fire station is open only Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 pm. If the fire on Great Road, whose cause was still under investigation last week, had happened outside of those hours, the response time would have been longer, he said.

It is unlikely the town, which is facing a $1.7 million budget deficit, will hire more firefighters soon. In fact, another firefighter was let go on March 20, leaving the department with just two full-timers.

"If we can't pay them, they're not going to work for nothing," said selectmen chairman Enrico Cappucci, who has suggested training the town's police officers who work the night shift to be first responders to a local fire.

"With lack of funding, that would be the only alternative," Cappucci said.

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