By John Anderson
Eric Otterson was still in middle school when he started hanging around fire headquarters in 1991. He soon started doing ride-alongs on the ambulance and joined the Fire Department Explorer Post. In his senior year at Auburn High he took the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course and showed up to take the state exam on his 18th birthday in 1996. Because he technically wasn’t 18, the examiners wouldn’t let him test.
At a later exam, Otterson became an EMT and then an Intermediate, trained to administer intravenous solutions and perform intubations. In 1999, he was one of four new firefighters hired by Auburn which soon entered into a public/private partnership with Patriot Ambulance that allowed the department to operated one Patriot’s ambulances 7am-5pm during the week. This was the start of an outstanding Emergency Medical Services (EMS) program in Auburn, and Eric has had a hand in all of it.
Otterson values education, and he earned an Associate in Fire Science from Quinsigamond Community College and a Bachelor’s in Fire Science from Anna Maria College. In between, he completed his Paramedic training at QCC and soon began working part-time for Worcester EMS.
He was a key architect of an EMS business plan approved by Town Meeting in 2005. This plan resulted in hiring 10 new firefighter/paramedics; purchasing a second ambulance and upgrading to the Paramedic care level in the summer of 2006. All of this was accomplished without tax increases for Auburn residents and businesses. When asked yesterday, Otterson said reality exceeded all expectations made in the business plan, and the department enjoys an 89% collection rate for provided EMS services.
Within the Auburn Fire Department, Otterson became the EMS Coordinator and a shift commander. He was subsequently promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and then Captain.
When Otterson looked into the Physician’s Assistant (PA) program at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, he knew he had some pre-requisite courses to complete like organic chemistry and anatomy & physiology. Once accomplished, he applied and was immediately accepted.
Fire Chief William Whynot approved a one-year leave of absence so Eric could attend school full-time during the 2011-2012 school year. After that, vacation time, scheduling, and shift swaps allowed the next year of clinical rotations in medical areas like orthopedics, pediatrics, and emergency medicine.
Otterson had hoped to return to the fire department for 5 more years, but his calling to practice as a PA took over. Yesterday was Eric’s 16th anniversary with AFD, and he knows it’s time to move forward. He considers himself retired, but will likely assist the department with educational classes and advice. He just won’t be putting on the gear anymore.
Eric says he’s always wanted to be part of medicine, “Changing the fear or worry in someone’s eyes to comfort.” He says about working as a PA, “It’s stimulating to me. A totally different pathway. Being a PA allows me to see, diagnose, treat, test, cure and discharge patients.”
His years in EMS have done some key things for Eric, “Paramedics have to quickly assess if a person is sick or not sick, and that helps me as a PA.” He added that he is not apprehensive about any medical procedures he has to perform. Working on the streets of Worcester has allowed him to do all the skills allowed to paramedics including delivering babies and using a needle to decompress a collapsed lung.
Otterson will be joining the staff of Wachusett Emergency Physicians in September. This group staffs the emergency department at Leominster Hospital and also operates two urgent care centers. He will continue to work per diem at Child Health Associates in Auburn and at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He will also be refereeing college ice hockey games and working with the Junior Bruins Program.
Otterson said all three Fire Chiefs he worked for, Roger Belhumeur, William Whynot and Stephen Coleman, always supported individual education and improvement even if the department might suffer for a little while. “I have this department to thank for this opportunity.”