BRATTLEBORO—For Rescue Inc. Chief of Operations Drew Hazelton, the decision of the town of Brattleboro not to renew its contract with the EMS nonprofit is an escalation of a relationship that has been going sour for a long time. But how exactly did we get here?
Multiple people close to the conflict have characterized the relationship between Rescue and the Brattleboro Fire Department as strained for years — so much so that tension between the two teams became ingrained in organizational culture.
Some even cite tensions from as far back as the nonprofit’s founding in 1966 by 14 former Brattleboro Fire Department members. And several town officials have said that since 2000, when the BFD became a first responder to emergencies, this conflict has escalated.
During such calls, fire department personnel who arrive first at the scene of a medical emergency stabilize the patient and then pass the responsibility and authority to Rescue to transport the patient or patients to a hospital — a scenario that requires regular interaction under deeply stressful conditions.
One Selectboard member, speaking off the record over the weekend, emphasized the professionalism of all the emergency personnel from both the BFD and Rescue has always transcended personality conflicts or tension. The patient comes first.
Hazelton has written that he “repeatedly asked for a resolution to years of poor patient turn over, gender discrimination, verbal abuse and general lack of cooperation by certain members of BFD.”
Around the time the town was investigating these claims, Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell attended a Rescue Inc. meeting of town officials to discuss the contract for the next three years.
There, the nonprofit would break down the financial realities of the volatile and complex EMS sector, walk municipalities through the levels of service, and seek feedback from member towns about a balance between costs and expectations.
The towns come to a consensus, and soon thereafter, the Rescue board sets the town assessments as agreed. Letters go to the member towns in time for budgeting and approval by Town Meeting Day in March. Over the next several months, Selectboards sign formal contracts to create a binding agreement for the emergency services.
At the end of 2021, Elwell retired. Hazelton describes the former town manager as a peacekeeper who was able to navigate the tensions, “working to try to bridge the gap. So we met multiple times, and his focus was on trying to get the services to work smooth in the field.”
Amid the organizational tension, there were rumors and rumblings about Brattleboro wanting to establish its own EMS in its fire department.
There were also clues. In recent years, the Brattleboro Fire Department’s building campaign created a fire station with bays for two ambulances that the town doesn’t have for a service that it wasn’t providing.
At that meeting of the 15 towns, Elwell made several indications, public and private, that while Brattleboro had aspirations to look at these issues, the town had no intention of changing course.
Elwell’s successor, Yoshi Manale, fresh from New Jersey, where he worked as a municipal manager in Trenton, was on the job for only about five weeks when he began the process of negotiating the next Rescue contract — a contract that Hazelton thought already had been negotiated.
“My prior experience with a municipal fire/EMS gave me a perspective that I believe my predecessors did not have when evaluating the fire department’s ability to offer the service,” Manale told The Commons in an email interview.
Manale asked Hazelton for a meeting, and they agreed to do so on Feb. 9. Hazelton asked Deborah Chapman, who holds a seat on the Rescue board of trustees representing Brattleboro, to join him. Brattleboro Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland attended with Manale.
“It did not go well,” one Selectboard member later said ruefully.
Hazelton recalls Manale opening with a bombshell in its own right: that the town would be interested only in a one-year contract, not the three-year commitment that the other 14 towns adopted.
And he contends that Manale came out with a second bombshell: The town would be willing to sign only if the municipal assessment were eliminated.
Manale describes that as a “half-truth.”
He says he wanted to know how a city in New Jersey 10 times the size of Brattleboro, with twice the number of uncollected insurance billings, would pay a subsidy of $65,000 a year, while Rescue, with a lower call volume, was calling for the town to pay an annual fee of $285,600.
“In addition, we surveyed surrounding municipalities that contracted with third-party EMS providers and found that they were paying substantially less than we were for a similar service,” Manale recounts. “I want to make clear: at no time have we questioned the service provided, just how much it cost the town.”
“I have many questions that are still unanswered and find that any lack of transparency at a private nonprofit as to its finances that the residents contribute close to $1.5 million should be questioned,” he says.
“In the absence of that information, we started the negotiations at zero as our internal analysis showed healthy compensation from billings,” Manale adds.
Hazelton says he had no authority to offer Manale a finely grained tour of Rescue’s books. And given the financial vulnerabilities of town governments and the process of getting 15 towns to agree on anything, he fundamentally bristled about what he described as “this hey-we’re-not-going-to-pay-our-share-anymore, you should do it for free” stance from Brattleboro.
“Wait a minute. Where did that come from? There’s been no conversation about that. In fact, we had a meeting where if that was the case, Peter should have brought that up in front of the other towns that you’re in this group with.”
“We can’t do this for free, and we won’t cost this to every other town because that is not reasonable. That’s not what we do,” Hazelton says. “That is not part of being in a partnership. Everybody else — you don’t expect them to pay your bill.”
Even after the destabilizing meeting, several Selectboard members say that the administrative team maintained hope that Rescue would have some change of heart about transparency and contract flexibility.
Rescue Inc. President Kathy Hege of Townshend has noted that Manale gave no inkling of the agenda. In response to several of Manale’s statements, Hege said that Hazelton has no authority to negotiate contracts and was in no position to authorize any excursion through the nonprofit’s accounts.
Hege — who as a longtime former member of her town’s Selectboard is no stranger to town finances — called the member town assessments “the backbone of our readiness to respond to calls in every town, cover any costs associated with fire standby, event coverage (like Strolling of the Heifers), and calls that generate no revenue because the patient was treated at the scene and not transported.”
She said that the disparity in expenses per call is not excessive, given the vast differences in population density and demographics, and she described any funds remaining at the end of the year as “minuscule.”
“Mr. Manale, rather than following protocol and requesting a meeting with the Trustees, to discuss this tried to hardball the Chief by stating that Brattleboro would not sign a contract unless we worked under the oversight of the Brattleboro Fire Department,” Hege wrote. “If we refused to allow that oversight, then we could only work in Brattleboro if we provided service at no cost.”
“Needless to say, the trustees, not Chief Hazelton, said no,” she said.
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If the meeting shook the confidence of the parties, Hazelton’s March 25 letter to Manale crushed any hope that some members of the Selectboard had in salvaging the relationship between the nonprofit and the municipality.
What Hazelton might see as a letter that offers a frank recap of a meeting that pleased nobody, the town has unambiguously taken it as the definitive word that the relationship is done — and, in their view, Rescue moved first.
Manale says the Selectboard members were contemplating potential paths forward, and he and town personnel were researching options. The letter, he says, “changed all that and forced us to move to find another provider.”
“Glven your stated position and unwillingness to pay for emergency medical response, Rescue Inc. will not be able to continue providing that service to the Town [of] Brattleboro beyond the June 30, 2022 contract end date,” Hazelton wrote.
He cited the personnel issues that had long been brewing — the “poor patient turn over, gender discrimination, verbal abuse and general lack of cooperation by certain members of BFD” — which some board members found deeply inappropriate. As they expressed their faith in their Human Resources staff and processes, some town officials and employees felt it was besmirching fire department personnel by dragging them into public allegations that the town officially found to be without merit.
“If the town would like to come and speak with me about an agreement for service beyond June 30, 2022, please contact me no later than May 1, 2022, to schedule a meeting,” Hazelton did add. But while he left that door open, the town had no intention of going through it.
Enough time had passed between the meeting and Hazelton’s response that even if board members wanted to put the brakes on, the clock was ticking on all the state permits and regulatory processes that a new vendor would have to navigate to deploy service to the community on July 1. All conversations about the matter at Selectboard meetings had taken place under executive session in the form of contract negotiations — and now there would be no time to create a methodical, deliberative process.
On April 11, Manale issued a news release that announced the town’s intent to retain Golden Cross Ambulance for a year, with the goal of ramping up the town’s ability to provide fire-based EMS service to residents. The town posted the news release announcing the decision and three scheduled public information sessions on Facebook.
The announcement stunned townspeople, who were completely unaware of the controversy. It also shocked Hazelton, who had received no response to his letter and who apparently learned of the Golden Cross plan only via the social media post — and then only after an inquiry that day from a reporter from the Brattleboro Reformer.
Later that same day, after a debate started raging online about the merits of the town’s plan and people debated about the board’s own issues of transparency, Manale and Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow issued a formal reply to the letter. They asserted that the town had investigated the personnel matters and found them “baseless.”
Hazelton still maintains otherwise.
“Everything is in the letter that we wrote to them,” Hazelton says earnestly. “It’s true.”
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Hazelton also serves as chair of Vermont Emergency Medical Services District 13, which administers training and certification throughout Windham County. One particular sentence of the letter jumped out at town staff and officials: “I continue to oppose BFD’s application for an increase of their EMS license to the Paramedic level.”
Goodnow read the sentence aloud during the April 19 Selectboard meeting.
“When this was brought to the attention of the town attorney, Bob Fisher, he informed the board that this was seriously concerning,” the Selectboard chair told the public.
In Goodnow and Manale’s April 11 reply, the two didn’t mince words: “It is unprofessional to use that authority to attempt to deny the BFD its new license at the paramedic level in an effort to force the Town of Brattleboro to sign a service contract with Rescue Inc., of which you are the [chief of operations],” they wrote. “It is a conflict of interest. You should recuse yourself from any decision-making of this kind regarding BFD.”
Hazelton has a different interpretation.
“One of these narratives out there right now is that I have blocked and prohibited [the Brattleboro Fire Department] from getting their license,” he says, saying that the assertion “could not be further from the truth.”
According to Hazelton, when the BFD applied for an upgrade to paramedic-level service last summer, the District 13 region’s medical director, Dr. James Suozzi, “gave them a list of things they must do in order to receive that license. That is his realm. There’s also a list of required things that’s written into to the EMS rule that a new service area service upgrade must do.”
“They have not completed either of those lists at all, even today,” Hazelton continues. “So their application has not actually been processed because application is not complete.”
“They’ve been to three different meetings now, and they will sit in the meeting and demand that we sign off on their license. And the answer is, ‘We can’t, because your application is not complete.’”
As for the town’s demand that Hazelton recuse himself? He says he already has.
“In January, when it became clear that they re submitted their application again, I asked [Putney Fire Chief] Tom Goddard to take on that role so that there would be no conflict of interest,” he says.
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On Tuesday, Rescue Inc. held its regular board meeting, at which its leadership presumably started the long discussion of exactly how to reconfigure an EMS service without its largest member town and with the sudden loss of its assessment.
“This will have an effect on our ability to provide the same service that we’re doing,” Hazelton predicts. The service, which he says the team does “at the highest possible level that you can do it at,” will need to reorganize to adapt to the financial shortfalls.
“We’re committed to continue to provide that service for the other towns at the level they’ve been getting,” he says reassuringly.
But, he adds, “where things are going to get challenging is more in Brattleboro and the surrounding communities that we provide mutual aid to.”
“We’ve helped Keene and Wilmington and Londonderry and Westminster, and we’re very fortunate to be able to have the resources and the personnel to be able to help a lot of those communities out,” he continues. “That’s likely not going to be able to happen — at least not to the extent that it does now.”
“And for the people of Brattleboro: You know, one of the things that I found almost insulting in the letter is the last line,” Hazelton says.
That last line from Manale and Goodnow: “We hope these last few months with Rescue Inc. as our primary EMS provider go smoothly, and as we move forward with a new provider and transition toward BFD Fire/EMS, that we can count on Rescue Inc. for mutual aid.”
“It’s like they’re expecting us to provide them with service for the calls that they can’t handle on their own,” Hazelton says.
Rescue, he points out proudly, has not missed a call in six years. That means that none of the neighboring companies have had to respond to a call on the organization’s 15-town turf.
By contrast, on one recent day, he claims, Golden Cross missed three of five calls in Bellows Falls.
That, he says, poses a question.
“Can you throw out your service for 56 years and then ask them to pick up the slack when you can’t cover it?” he asks. “Is that even a reasonable request?”