The field of emergency medicine is always looking for ways to improve response speed, serve more people in need and incorporate newer and better lifesaving techniques. Charlestown, R.I., has come up with a way to do all three, initiating a program that issues lockboxes to residents who meet certain criteria such as age being age 65 or older, medically disabled or having other special needs.
The boxes are free to residents who request them and enable police, fire and rescue squads to quickly gain access to them in moments of distress.
Chief Andrew Kettle of the Charlestown Ambulance and Rescue Service and police Lt. Phillip Gingerella were assigned the project when members of the seaside town’s local council wanted to get the program funded and started.
“We worked with patrolman Mike Carrasquillo, my elderly affairs officer, and Senior Center Director Michelle Vekakis,” Gingerella said. “The town council had appropriated $10,000 from the current year’s budget if we could make it happen.”
Gingerella said one method they had heard of to take care of that population was to simply supply elderly residents with a standard realtor box to attach to their front door.
“We felt we could expand on that idea and design a program that included a more robust exterior key box. We reached out to a local manufacturer who produces the standard fire department key box attached to every commercial building in the country and asked to see a key box that was just as sturdy” for their purposes. It produced a residential version of the commercial building boxes, Kettle said the Fire Department Emergency Access Box program was the right idea to fit their design needs.
As hoped, public reaction was swift and strong. Kettle said there is much interest and a waiting list of residents and families looking to have a box installed. A page on the town’s website with information about the program.
The boxes can be requested by family members or caregivers. “If they contact us, we’ll work with the homeowner to get a lockbox installed for them,” he said.
Gingerella added once the design was agreed upon, the committee put together an informational flier and purchased 10 boxes to start with.
“We decided we would softly roll out the program, with just Mrs. Vekakis mentioning it to some of the seniors around the senior center. Within a few days, all 10 boxes were deployed. We asked the town to purchase 10 more boxes, because we had more requests,” he said.
“The program really took off on its own, as one recipient told several of their friends and then the requests poured in. We currently have 55 boxes deployed, with more requests pending — although, as with everything else in the country today, the additional boxes are back ordered.”
The boxes are perfectly secure for those who have them: Only authorized members of the police, fire and rescue teams will have access to the key and all instances of access to a box is carefully documented.
Advertisements on TV for personal alarm devices don’t show how much time can be lost if a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician has to gain forced entry into a house.
“I have been a police officer for 25 years, and over that period of time, I have broken into dozens of houses knowing a sick or injured person is inside. It would have been nice to have a hidden or easily available key to prevent damage to the residence,” Gingerella said. “We have an elderly person who signed up to have a key box because we had to break into her residence a couple of years ago when she fell and could not get to the door.”
According to Kettle, “The biggest success we have is that we have 55 lockboxes installed and haven’t, to date, had to use them. However, knowing that we’ll be able to get to those residents faster and without the potential for damage to their home is huge.”
Charlestown has a second lifesaving program to be proud of: The town is a HeartSafe Community. The HeartSafe Communities program is a collaborative effort between the Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Program and the American Heart Association. The program incorporates CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators. According to Kettle, “We’re always looking for ways to take care of our residents and be on the leading edge of best practices.”
“This new program just adds to the services we provide to our residents,” added Gingerella.
In a town that counted 7,997 residents in the 2020 census, 55 lockboxes still leaves some room for improvement. When asked what the plan was for expansion if needed, Gingerella said, “The town has agreed to appropriate more money should the need for the boxes increase and we have to purchase more.” He went on to note that the boxes belong to the town and are returned to the town if a resident no longer needs it, lending itself to recycling and reuse. “I would strongly encourage other communities to look at what’s best for them and their residents,” said Kettle. “We’ve found this will work well here and with our integrated police, EMS and fire teams.” The initiative also creates a safe way for elderly or special needs townspeople to remain in their own homes for a longer period of time.