BURRILLVILLE – The rescue captain for the Pascoag Fire Department has been named Emergency Medical Service Coordinator of the year in the state of Rhode Island in recognition of his work with the national Community Health Program.
Capt. Thomas Smith received the award on Friday, May 25, in a ceremony at the Rhode Island State House.
Through Smith’s leadership, the fire department, which operates with a full-time team of just six people, was the first in the state to implement the program. The aim is to allow EMTs to provide services and assessment in advance of an emergency, in effort to reduce 911 calls.
“It’s a form of mobile community healthcare,” Smith told NRI NOW this week.
Smith heard of the program through his part-time job as an outreach worker for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and started the process in Pascoag in 2014. The department created a Community Health Needs Assessment for the village, and then signed a memorandum of understanding with local health care providers Well One and Fatima Hospital.
“It says we work together,” Smith said.
EMS workers initiate contact with potential patients, and provide education and assessment, reporting back to the conventional caregivers.
“If they need education about their disease or they need more help, we work with their primary care,” said Smith.
The reason it works well in the area, Smith noted, is in part because one third of Burrillville residents go to Well One.
“That’s a lot of people,” he said.
The program focuses on addressing the leading causes of death as identified by the Center for Disease Control. Heart disease, Smith notes, is number one.
“We try to counsel people,” he said.
The department also works with people suffering from chronic lower respiratory disease including asthma, bronchitis and COPD – the third leading cause of death behind cancer – and aims to decrease the number of potential trauma calls.
Smith points out that there were 79 calls for falls in Pascoag last year alone.
“We have an increasing elderly population,” Smith said. “Those that take blood thinners are more susceptible to injury.”
To help, Pascoag EMTs will provide residents with a home assessment checking for safety measures such as railings inside showers, and eliminating fall hazards such as rugs.
“The biggest thing in the program is to try to prevent things before they call 911,” said Smith.
The firefighters also address diseases like diabetes with a medicine reconciliation, making sure patients are taking their drugs properly. Their outreach efforts also include making sure that those at risk are going to a physician, and keeping their appointments.
To address the 10th leading cause of death, suicide, Smith has formed a partnership with Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket to help patients who need mental health counseling. He also refers those struggling with addiction to Michelle Harter, the Burrillville Police Department’s addiction assistance coordinator.
From picking up medicines for those unable to get around, to checking up on those with special medical needs during a storm, Smith says he’s done it all. He and his partner, Fire Marshal Tom Fagan, also follow up with clients and are currently working with 18 patients who they see on a periodic basis.
With hurricane season officially starting on Friday, June 1, Smith’s latest push is to get residents signed up for the Rhode Island Special Needs Emergency Registry, a system linked with 911, so first responders know how to prepare when responding to calls.
“If we do come across a patient who has a health care need, we encourage them to sign up,” he says.
To learn more about the program residents are encouraged to call the Pascoag Fire Department at 401-559-6545.
Smith’s work has put the small department way ahead of the rest of the state in terms of implementing the program, which is more prevalent in the midwestern part of the country. The paramedics have worked closely with Lisa Schiffmann of Well One, launching in Pascoag in March of 2017. Other communities in the state have since launched PILOT programs.
A full-time member of the department since 2013, Smith notes that his village of 8,000 residents includes three nursing homes, a state hospital and an elderly living complex.
“These areas tend to make us really busy,” he said, noting that the trend in the senior population is to stay at home, rather than moving to nursing centers.
“We’re part of the home health team,” he said. “The biggest thing is funding. In the state of Rhode Island we can’t bill Medicare or Medicaid for these services.”
Smith is trying to help change that, and is working with area representatives on new legislation.
“We’re not just putting out fires or responding to accidents,” he said. “Primarily, we’re responding to medical calls.”
For the Pascoag native, the community health program is all about encouraging residents to reach out in advance, rather than waiting for an emergency. And care, he notes, shouldn’t end at transport.
“It’s not just dumping them off at the hospital and saying ‘bye,'” Smith said. “We want to know the end result.”