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Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi gives a tour of the then-brand-new fire station in February.

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‘This is the type of thing that just makes everything that we do seem right’

Brattleboro Fire Chief says department’s statewide award for first-responder services truly shows firefighters’ ‘level of dedication to the residents in this town’

This interview is adapted from the June 15 broadcast of Green Mountain Mornings on WINQ-AM (formerly WKVT) and is published with the station’s permission. Host Olga Peters was for many years the senior reporter at The Commons and has recently returned to write part-time. The show airs daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/wkvtradio.

BRATTLEBORO—I wanted to bring out the fanfare for the Brattleboro Fire Department — and my recent guest, Fire Chief Mike Bucossi — because they have just been awarded the 2018 First Responder Service of the Year award by the Vermont Department of Health Emergency Medical Services.

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Olga Peters: Congratulations.

Mike Bucossi: Thank you very much.

O.P.: Now, what I find so interesting about the Brattleboro Fire Department is, yes, you fight fires, but you also have a really extensive medical response team. You have really well-trained paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

How long has this program been in effect?

M.B.: Boy, the Medical First Response Program has been in effect for close to 25 years now, I would say. We run in tandem with Rescue Inc., the contracted ambulance service for the town, on all life-threatening situations — cardiac issues, breathing issues, traumas, overdoses, obviously — and that has added a workload to the department.

The award came as a big surprise. We’ve known about it now for a couple of weeks, but to this day, I don’t know who nominated us. I’m told that when the time is right we’ll find out from the state.

But it’s quite an honor. And we’re very happy to be the recipient this year.

O.P.: And remind me: you run three shifts each on 24 hours, like three platoons. Roughly how many people on a shift, and how many of these people have had some kind of first-responder training?

M.B.: Sure. So we run three shifts of seven people who are on duty 24 hours a day. We have 21 people on shift, three shifts of seven. There’s five who are always downtown and two in West Brattleboro. And they work a 24-hour shift and then have two days off.

It’s a schedule that has been in place since — well, since I started 40 years ago. We’ve tinkered with it a little bit and tried different things but this is for the amount of staff we have, this is the right schedule.

O.P.: And roughly how many of them have had first- responder training?

M.B.: So all of them are at a minimum of EMT-level, emergency medical technician. We have — I’m going to take a stab here — six or seven who are at the advanced level. We have one of the staff members who is presently in paramedic school — a very, very big accomplishment once he goes through it. It’s a lot of work to go through that training.

O.P.: Well, even being an EMT is no walk in the park.

M.B.: When we all became EMTs, it was a couple of steps up; there used to be what they called basic first aid, then there was advanced first aid, and then there was EMT.

Now, EMT is kind of the second step up, I guess. But the thing is is that, you know, these folks go out get these certifications — the advanced level, the paramedic — and it’s for their own knowledge, their own performance level. They get nothing extra from one for getting this training. So it truly shows their level of dedication to the residents in this town.

O.P.: Why take on this extra aspect?

M.B.: It’s a service that we feel that the town residents deserve. And we we work very closely with Rescue Inc. [Radio crackles, and Bucossi pauses.] I’m sorry for my hesitation. I’m trying to listen to them but we’re all good now.

We work very closely with with Rescue Inc. But the way the staff looks at it is, you know, we’re the municipal department — this is our town. We want to provide any service we can to the residents because they’re our customers, they pay our way, they buy our equipment, and we feel they deserve the best that we can give them.

O.P.: You’ve kind of reached a new level as a department, too, that you’re asking for a grant for safety vests. Chris Mays wrote a good article in the Reformer this morning.

M.B.: They are a Level 3A ballistic vest. They are, if you will bulletproof/bullet resistant and one of the things I wanted to make sure that we got was something that is puncture and slash resistant.

Today’s fire services — and emergency services as a whole — are very different than they used to be. And because we get into different situations — like school-shooter situations, violent acts, domestic-violence calls and, especially now, the overdose crisis and the opiate crisis — I feel that our guys should be protected to a different level when they go into some of these situations. They needed an extra level of protection.

I can say that there was some pushback from some of the staff, and I certainly understand that — they believe that, you know, “they’re firefighters,” “they’re medics.” But we don’t go into a fire without bunker gear [firefighters’ personal protective equipment] and with some of these situations that we’re now handling, I don’t think we should be in them without some ballistics protection.

O.P.: So that’s ... that’s intense.

M.B.: It really is.

Like I said, the world is a different place, this town is a different place right now, and we have to do our best — not only to handle the situations, but it’s my job to give my staff the tools to do it at the highest level they can.

I’m pretty adamant about this. The town manager has been very supportive about it. It’s a very different request from a fire department.

But in talking to colleagues across New England, it’s not all that uncommon anymore.

O.P.: I can imagine even in some cases, if someone is in crisis they may not mean to act violently but they do — because they are in crisis.

M.B.: They are in crisis. They may not understand the situation they’re in.

When we bring somebody out of an overdose with Narcan, they can be very violent.

We were in a situation the other day where there was an overdose, a fatal, and there were a lot of friends around. And it was a very emotional scene and it got pretty nasty for a little while. It just reinforced my thoughts about the protection we should have.

Hopefully, these grants will come through. I don’t want to spend my budget money on this purchase only because it’s just so different — there are other things that we need to stay to our core mission — but certainly if it comes down to that, then that’s what I’ll try to do.

O.P.: And how was the response in the department when they heard about the award?

M.B.: Very, very proud. The guys, they don’t look for a lot of attention; they’re very humble. They just go about their their way and do their jobs. But it was fun to let them know. It was a very proud moment for me and I’m not afraid to admit it — I have a great staff. They make my job easy.

This is the type of thing that just makes everything that we do seem right. It makes it seem like we’re doing it the right way. We’ll always try to progress; we’ll always try to deliver our services in a more efficient way. But when you get statewide recognition such as this, it reinforces that our program and the way that we’re delivering it is the right way and we’re doing the right thing for the citizens.

O.P.: Well it’s interesting you say that, because the folks who who decide who gets the award have a number of criteria. Two benchmarks that the state paid attention to with the Brattleboro Fire Department was taking meaningful steps in regards to professionalism and patient quality care, as well as identifying areas where quality improvement could happen and kind of moving that ball forward.

Those were two places that the state felt the department had excelled in.

M.B.: Along with those two things was that we voluntarily started the state reporting system when we didn’t have to. That was one of the things that it pointed out to us. And the other was that we opened our doors to the state to come in and do equipment inspections for the stuff that we carry on the trucks for medical emergencies.

There was a pilot program when they started it, and I didn’t see any reason not to step up and let them come in because if we don’t know what we don’t have or what we’re doing wrong or what we should be doing differently, we won’t be able to improve.

So it wasn’t an inspection that you were going to be penalized on. There was a learning process, and I was very happy the way it came out. At the same time, there was a lot we learned through it. That’s only going to make us better.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #466 (Wednesday, July 4, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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