BRATTLEBORO — At almost 90 years old, Verne Bristol's heart and his memories are still very much with Rescue Inc., the organization he and 13 other men founded in Brattleboro in 1966.
What does Bristol, a former president of the nonprofit and a town resident, think of the town's desire to allow the Brattleboro Fire Department to ultimately take over Rescue Inc.'s responsibilities?
“I'm sure our new town manager is a smart man and was hired with good reason,” Bristol says, referencing Yoshi Manale, who was hired in 2021 to replace Peter Elwell. “However, you can't learn what Rescue Inc. has learned over the previous 56 years in one year. That just isn't going to happen. It's simply not going to work.”
Bristol noted that the funding for a continued partnership with Rescue Inc. “was OK'ed in the town budget,” originated under Elwell.
Manale, who brings experience in working with municipalities in New Jersey that directly provide EMS service, came to the job with questions about the funding and the finances and with the suspicion that the town could save money with other models.
“The new town manager overrode that. That's not the way to get things done,” says Bristol.
An early dust-up
This isn't the first time Rescue and the Fire Department have had words. On July 9, 1968, an article appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer under the headline “Rescue Controversy Apparently Ended.”
During that round of talks, then–Town Manager Corwin S. Elwell - whose son Peter would be hired for the same position in 2015 - had initially agreed to allow the Brattleboro Fire Department to take over all emergency medical services, “all but ask[ing] Rescue Inc. to confine its activities to areas outside the town in deference to the fire rescue unit which is supported by town tax money.”
The town manager then did “a dramatic reversal of a stand taken a week earlier,” the newspaper reported.
The article went on to explain that Elwell “later said his move was an effort to keep from having two rescue units en route to accidents simultaneously over city streets.”
That decision to designate Rescue Inc. as the town primary emergency service source “changed a long-standing directive that all town organizations call the fire rescue unit unless the injured person specifically requested [Rescue Inc.].”
From the hearse to the ambulance
Bristol explains that in 1966, when emergency medical medicine was in its infancy, it was common nationwide for funeral homes to transport sick and injured citizens in their hearses, alone in the back without medical care.
“In the very beginning we still dispatched a hearse and a member of Rescue rode in the back with the patient,” he says. “I could tell you stories about some of those drivers. They weren't trained to drive hurt people, they were trained to drive dead ones,” he adds with a laugh.
Bristol remembers that he was among 14 members of the National Ski Patrol who were certified in Advanced First Aid. “At the time, there weren't any EMTs or paramedics in those beginning days of EMS,” he says. “We were all skiing Hogback Mountain on the weekends.”
Filled with a desire to serve their community and noticing an increasing number of particularly bad automobile accidents, the group came together with a hope of offering actual care to the patients in the back of the hearses.
The group approached Fire Chief T. Howard Mattison, then in his 20s, and asked “if we could base ourselves at the fire station and offer emergency medical care and transportation in Brattleboro, and he agreed to that.”
The arrangement lasted five years, Bristol says. Over time, the volunteers decided that it would be a better arrangement to house themselves somewhere else. They stationed themselves at 100 Canal St. in what is now Portland Glass. Rescue volunteers revamped an old gas station into their headquarters.
Dr. James Miniszek, on staff at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, was Rescue's first medical director. Rescue Inc. had the full support of the staff at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital - in large part due to what Bristol describes as the excellent training they received the doctor.
“We were the first squad in the State of Vermont to do intravenous fluids in the field,” remembers Bristol, noting that Dr. John Bookwalter, a thoracic surgeon at BMH, trained them.
“We've always been ahead of the pack. We started out as a bunch of guys who were on ski patrol and we created an organization that has changed, grown, and shown the way in the state of Vermont as the years have passed,” he says.
Bristol cites Rescue's “all manner of awards from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, from the Vermont State Police, and we've been recognized as the best Rescue squad in the state of Vermont several times.”
“We even have three members who have been recognized nationally for their excellence in EMS,” he says.
When Emergency Medical Technician certification became available in Vermont in 1975, Rescue volunteers were excited to take the test.
“All of us were first aid instructors. We had advanced first aid certification. Of these original 14 members, 12 of them studied the book,” Bristol recalls.
“We went to Burlington, and we passed the EMT test with flying colors,” he says. “We were 10 of the original members of the national EMT registry in the United States.”
The early days
As Bristol tells it, the first meeting of the original volunteers, they emptied their pockets of all their spare change and began Rescue Inc. with the $10 they had among them.
“We all carried metal boxes in our cars to meet at the calls. In the beginning we all donated the necessary supplies. We'd use up what we had and then go out and buy what we needed out of our own pockets,” he says.
“We gave free medical care to the town of Brattleboro for years and years,” Bristol says.
In the 1970s, the local funeral homes decided to charge $35 per call, while Rescue decided to not charge for the services of more than 100 volunteers, including local radio personality Larry Smith - a service that remained free for more than a decade until 1981.
Eventually, Rescue Inc. had to start charging for services as expenses grew. But even so, in the 1980s, the cost was still $58 per run, Bristol recalls.
Rescue Inc. came up with an innovation - the ambulance subscription service, which covers the balance of what a patient's health insurance won't pay.
Fundraising kept the organization going, with donations making possible Rescue's new building at 249 Canal St. in the early 1980s, raising money to purchase new ambulances, and for everything needed to serve the public.
Over the years, Bristol says, Rescue Inc. became the go-to organization for other specialties, filling in where the organization saw the need.
“We've always been into public safety. We got into children's car seats, we gave first aid and CPR classes, we began to teach our own trainings for EMS certifications. We fitted people for bicycle helmets. We cover all the local fires to keep the firemen healthy while fighting fires. That's very strenuous work,” says Bristol. “There was a time when we filled all the local people's oxygen tanks for free.”
“Whatever the need, we've tried to serve the public well over all our years of service,” he adds. “Will the Brattleboro Fire Department be planning on taking over all those services to the public as well?”
Making it work
Bristol is full of stories of how the organization was built. The new organization purchased a station wagon in the 1960s from R.S. Roberts on Canal Street.
“They sold it to us for $1 as a donation. Half the time it wouldn't even start in the winter. There of us would get out and push it to get it going,” Bristol says, chuckling.
Maude Rounds, who owned an answering service, volunteered to call when there was a need to round up members of the ambulance squad.
“We called them our 'call girls,'” Bristol recalls. “Maude would call my house, and my wife, Mary, who was home with our children, would call me and two more members, their wives would make two more calls, [and so on] until we all received the word,” he said.
Without a GPS available in the 1960s, Rescue members took out maps of every town that they served and listed the location of every single street in the area with directions from Rescue quarters to that street.
“We ended up making about 50 copies of that document. The State Police wanted it, the Fire Department wanted it, everyone was excited to have it. We used that binder in our ambulances for years and years,” says Bristol.
“I could tell you stories all day long of the support we've received from the public in Brattleboro, but it comes down to this,” he says.
Bristol recalls an encounter during a squad meeting several years ago. “A man, whose life we had saved, appeared during the meeting with tears streaming down his face,” he says. “He walked through the room, thanking each member of the Rescue Inc. squad.”
“Those are the moments that stick with me,” says Bristol. “I sincerely hope that the town of Brattleboro can work out its differences and let Rescue get back to saving lives.”