BRATTLEBORO — On May 17, the Selectboard approved a nearly $40,000 feasibility study of a proposal to have the municipal fire department take over local emergency medical services.
The final report, however, could bring as many questions as answers.
The town government is signing a contract with a Wyoming-based consulting firm, AP Triton, to research the costs, staffing needs, and related challenges of assuming the work of the town's nearly 60-year EMS provider, the private, nonprofit Rescue Inc.
Local leaders surprised residents last month when they abruptly announced the municipality would leave Rescue on June 30 to pursue a plan to establish its own EMS program. The pullout, which came with little notice or public debate, has spurred weeks of criticism at meetings and in the media.
“There's been some loss in trust,” Selectboard member Daniel Quipp acknowledged in approving the feasibility work.
“It seems like a thorough study will provide a decent point from which to consider whether municipal fire/EMS services will work for this town,” he said. “Let us engage these folks, seriously consider what comes out of this, take it slowly, and move forward when we have the information.”
The town government will pay AP Triton $38,721 for a study that's slated to take 120 days. The review will report on the feasibility not only of a fire department takeover, but also of returning to an outside provider or running a hybrid program using both public and private resources.
“I want to have a thorough understanding of all three of those options,” Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow said.
Lessons from other towns?
Which model ultimately is the answer may spark additional questions and need for action, other municipalities have learned.
AP Triton recently conducted a study for the Vermont town of Williston, which made national news after firefighters responding to an emergency there couldn't find replacements, leaving the station empty for almost an hour.
“Inadequate staffing levels are compromising firefighter and civilian safety,” the resulting report concluded.
Citing the study, Williston increased its fire and EMS budget by 42 percent this coming year to pay for nine more employees, as recommended in the report.
Brattleboro Fire Chief Leonard Howard III doesn't anticipate his town having to do that, as local staffing levels are higher. But speaking about a lack of on-call firefighters last fall, he said such increases “most likely will be coming in the future.”
The feasibility study is expected to address the accuracy of departing Town Manager Yoshi Manale's estimate that the town could make upward of $700,000 annually by taking over EMS delivery and billing, as well as whether the municipality should follow his recommendation to use refurbished rather than new ambulances.
Many in the public are skeptical. The Commons has published pages of critical commentary, including one letter, from Brattleboro lawyer William Kraham, headlined “With Rescue vote, our elected officers have failed us” [Voices, May 11].
“This is not a choice between using Uber or Lyft for your ride to the hospital,” wrote Kraham, who credits Rescue for his survival after sudden cardiac arrest. “I have a sense of foreboding that our elected officers have chosen to gamble with people's lives.”
Other residents have taken to social media, including long threads on the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group, in defense of the town and Manale.
For their part, regional and state leaders are questioning why Brattleboro didn't consider how pulling out from Windham County's largest EMS provider would affect its neighboring communities and their mutual aid system.
“Are we trying to make up some community goodwill by slowing down and doing it the right way? Absolutely,” Selectboard member Tim Wessel said in approving the study.
“This is a very thorough examination, in my opinion, and is going to be worth every penny,” Wessel said. “Our community needs to be reassured we're moving in the right direction. I think this is a good path, but I am perfectly willing to eat those words if it turns out this is not.”