Delayed Response: Thoughts on Public Safety from a Frontline Firefighter/Medic
There’s no doubt the transition from a volunteer fire department to a professional career fire department must be a difficult one for any community. Balancing the needs of a community against the limitations of budgets, coordinating licensing and certifications, and dedicating countless hours to schedule the appropriate coverage are just some of the challenges faced by all fire departments. I imagine these challenges are amplified for younger organizations. The thought of lies, deceit, sexual discrimination, and flat-out dirty politics, only multiplies these difficulties tenfold.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s going on in Belchertown, Massachusetts. For over a decade the town has been protected by a dedicated team of EMTs and Paramedics working for Belchertown EMS. Three years ago the fire department became “full time” by staffing four firefighters during business hours on weekdays. In an effort to eliminate redundancies, Belchertown EMS was absorbed into the fire department. The five full-time paramedics were also absorbed into the same department.
Concerned, the paramedics began asking questions. They were guaranteed they would be grandfathered-in as single-role paramedics or have the option of being trained as dual-role firefighter-paramedics if they wished. After all, approximately eighty percent of Belchertown’s emergency responses are on the ambulance. Maintaining a strong, dedicated team of paramedics was in the best interests of both the department and the community as a whole. Additionally, they were assured their union contract with the town would be honored. Neither of those promises turned out to be the truth.
In the three short years following the merger, Chief Bock has made no attempt to honor his word. Requests by paramedics to attend the fire academy were turned down, except for one paramedic who fit the mold. The paramedics’ union was bad-mouthed to non-union fire department employees. Problems having nothing to do with the union were blamed on it anyway, resulting in the union eventually being dissolved by vote of all department employees. And, according to what I've been told, the chief openly expressed his dislike of females in the fire service because of all the “problems” it causes.
Well, guess what. When the chief approached the Belchertown Select Board (unbeknownst to the paramedics) about abolishing the remaining four single-role paramedics, he effectively eliminated the department’s only three full-time females. He also eliminated the union’s former president.
What’s even more disturbing about all this is the manner in which last week’s events played out. Bock readily admits he did not allow these medics the opportunity to train as fire fighters and, when asked, said he was “not sure” if they knew this was suddenly now required of them. Really?! Three out of four select board members felt those were acceptable answers to their questioning! Even more sickening is the fact that the four medics were notified of their layoffs on Monday morning BEFORE the chief’s proposal was even approved by the selectboard!
These four paramedics who served the Belchertown community for years with compassion and professionalism deserve better than the way they were treated. In fact, the people of Belchertown deserve better. Sixty combined years of EMS experience does not come easily and should not be simply tossed aside. Members of the community should not stand for any department in their town using lies, discrimination, and anti-labor tactics as standard practice. Hopefully the recent national media attention to this unfortunate series of events will compel the Belchertown Select Board to reconsider their actions.
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Tom Valle earned his EMT certification in 2000. After graduating from UMass, Amherst in 2001, Tom worked private ambulance in both Springfield and Greenfield, MA while earning his paramedic certification from Greenfield Community College. He continues to work as a professional firefighter/paramedic in western Massachusetts and serves as the secretary for union’s Local. Tom is continuing his education by working towards a Bachelor’s in Fire Science through Columbia Southern University.
Tom can be reached directly at