The Waterbury Ambulance Service has been in the same building off Guptil Road since the early 1980s. A lot has changed since then — from the equipment it uses to the services it provides — and it’s ready for a new location.
Its modest structure, tucked away behind the town garage, holds two ambulances, a cramped office, and a conference room. In the corner of that room is a glass case with relics of ages past. On the middle shelf sits a red rotary phone that once served dispatch. Below it stands an old intubator; the metal housing is painted olive drab and it looks like equipment from World War II. Next to that is a defibrillator from the 1980s, larger than a briefcase.
Like these artifacts, the building itself has outlived its usefulness. The ambulance service has been weighing options for the last few years, but now is almost ready to pull the trigger on a bigger building with more space and functionality.
Waterbury Ambulance Service handles about 700 calls a year, transporting more than 450 people. And that mission is expanding. Waterbury Backcountry Rescue also works under the ambulance service umbrella, racing to the aid of people injured or lost in difficult terrain, often in darkness.
The new location hasn’t been finalized yet, but Mark Podgwaite, executive director, is considering three locations — one on the property that’s now home to Duxbury’s town garage and office, and two others he’s not ready to talk about yet. Whatever the choice, it will be a building with more space, greater functionality and a location closer to Route 100 and Interstate 89.
“Our first inclination was to stay here and just add on to this building,” Podgwaite said, but that wouldn’t work. The service needs more space, and the building is already skirting the property line.
Podgwaite said the nonprofit organization will raise the money needed for the new building with active fundraising, grants and donations.”If we’re lucky, we could find one giant foundation that would fund the whole thing,” he said.
Because there’s no location yet, it’s hard to tell how much the service will need.
“One, two million maybe? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s site-specific.” But things are moving along, and a decision on a new location is expected in the coming weeks. Once that’s done a design will be solidified with space for more gear and bigger vehicles and better facilities for overnight shifts.
“Who knows what emergency medical services look like in 10 years or 20 years or 30 years?” Podgwaite said.
The ambulances barely fit in the garage bays now, and the organization can’t buy a new four-wheel-drive ambulance because it’s 8 inches longer and won’t fit.
The backcountry rescue gear doesn’t fit at all. The uniforms and other soft goods are kept at a private residence and the Waterbury Fire Department allows the rescue team to store its ATVs and snowbulance — a snowmobile-towed enclosure on snow runners — at the Waterbury Center fire station.
A new building would have three or four roomy bays for vehicles and, ideally, enough space to store the backcountry rescue gear and the trailer that’s used to transport it.
Before the backcountry rescue team was formed in 2002, the Waterbury Fire Department would work with Waterbury Ambulance crews on backcountry rescues, but frequent calls for rescues on 4,085-foot Camel’s Hump were overwhelming.
“At one point during one rescue, we said, ‘This is insane,’” said Brian Lindner, chief of the backcountry rescue team, and an EMT for the ambulance service since the 1980s. “We’ve got the fire department up on Camel’s Hump in the middle of the night, and if something catches fire in town, it’s going to be a problem.”
That’s when the backcountry rescue team was formed; it has contributed to 213 rescues since. The team helps injured and stranded hunters, snowmobilers, skiers and, most frequently, hikers.
“Hikers are going out completely unprepared. No maps, no matches, no headlamps, no nothing,” Lindner said. When they got lost or injured, all they have to help them are their cellphones. By the time the call’s made, the sun’s often setting and time is crucial.
“From the 213 rescues, I think we’ve only done less than five that started in daylight and ended in daylight.” Lindner said. “Almost all of our rescues are done in darkness.”
The current setup makes speedy responses difficult.
“Right now it takes us one to two hours to get moving. We have to move fire trucks, hitch up the trailer,” Lindner said. “If we have our own space in a new building, everything is hitched up and ready to go.”
“Let’s say a typical rescue is five to six hours. … This would, in a lot of occasions, buy us an extra hour of daylight.”
More space for people is needed, too.
“Volunteerism is not like it used to be, and it’s getting harder and harder and harder to get people to volunteer,” Podgwaite said. “We have to switch to a paid situation.”
Local volunteers could respond to calls from their homes, but paid emergency medical technicians often aren’t local, and if they’re on an overnight shift — each shift running 12 hours — they need a place to sleep. The current building has no bunking area. Designs for the new building include a kitchenette and two sleeping areas that could bunk as many as four people.
“When I started here, we were all volunteers,” said Michelle Franklin, a paramedic. That was 15 years ago, and the volunteer ranks have changed. The ambulance service now has two full-time employees — Podgwaite and Franklin — six part-time employees, and 17 volunteers.
“We’ve grown in our part time staff, where we have folks coming from out of town to work,” Franklin said. There’s nowhere for these people to sleep, so a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift is rough.
“Our accommodations are not great,” she said. “Anybody that comes in here will see that (the station) is falling apart. I’m hopeful that more people will want to volunteer if we had this nice new station.”
That is especially important if Waterbury Ambulance Service wants to be licensed to administer paramedic services. EMTs and paramedics do the same work on most calls, but paramedics can administer pain-relieving and cardiovascular stabilizing medicines. Franklin recalled a case where a man fell off a roof. “I’m almost positive he shattered both his legs,” she said, but they couldn’t move him until they relieved the pain, and it took about 30 minutes for a paramedic to arrive.
“We don’t always need paramedics,” Franklin said, but when they do, a quick response time is crucial.