Brattleboro EMS plan will launch as public questions linger

‘This is a manufactured crisis,’ one cardiac arrest survivor said of the ambulance change set for July 1. ‘I have a sense of foreboding that our elected officers have chosen to gamble with people’s lives.’

BRATTLEBORO — The municipal press release began with a bombshell: “Rescue Inc. informed the Selectboard and Town Manager that [it] would no longer be providing emergency medical services for the Town of Brattleboro as of July 1.”

People who know Rescue as Windham County's largest and longest-serving EMS provider were shocked - none more so than officials at the private nonprofit who hadn't said that at all.

Rescue had told municipal leaders the town's contract was set to expire this summer and they would need a new one to continue nearly 60 years of uninterrupted coverage.

“If the town would like to come and speak with me about an agreement for service beyond June 30, 2022, please contact me,” Rescue Chief of Operations Drew Hazelton wrote in a letter.

But that isn't what municipal leaders reported. Instead, they said the local fire department, to fill an imminent void, would take over EMS duties through a transition plan with the less-expensive Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, N.H.

A series of incorrect or incomplete assertions about the town's EMS situation has sparked public questions about truthfulness and transparency.

“This is a manufactured crisis,” local lawyer William Kraham wrote in a letter to The Commons [“With Rescue vote, our elected officers have failed us,” May 11]. “This is not a choice between using Uber or Lyft for your ride to the hospital.”

“I have a sense of foreboding that our elected officers have chosen to gamble with people's lives,” he added.

Kraham, who credits Rescue with saving him from sudden cardiac arrest when minutes count, told VTDigger that he hasn't heard from municipal leaders about his concerns that the town's EMS plan for backup is to turn to Keene, N.H., and Greenfield, Mass. - each a half hour away.

But other residents asking questions say they've been dismissed as simply resistant to change. They express appreciation for the work of Rescue and the fire department. But they worry the takeover plan, approved by five lay Selectboard members with little notice or public debate, will start months before a town-commissioned study finds if it's even feasible.

“The way this developed is extremely odd,” said retired correctional officer Robert Oeser, who spurred the Selectboard to alter how it calls for executive sessions after he filed a notice charging members had violated the state's public information law [“After notice of violation, a race for a cure,” News, June 8]. “There's a lot that's under the table or behind closed doors.”

Since announcing their plan April 11, municipal leaders have issued a series of statements that either have changed, been proven incorrect, or come without corroborating evidence.

“After careful consideration of various options, the town will be shifting from a private provider to a joint Fire/EMS service,” leaders wrote in the second paragraph of their first press release, even though they had yet to hold a public meeting to introduce the idea, let alone investigate it.

Readers of the website, seeking to sleuth out when and where that “careful consideration” happened, have created “Your Handy Brattleboro Fire - EMS - Rescue Timeline.”

It features such dates as last Sept. 16, when retired Town Manager Peter Elwell took the microphone at Rescue's annual meeting to reassure that his municipality's hopes to use some of its firefighters as paramedics wasn't to abandon or upend a care network the region has relied on for a half century.

“We're keen to the idea that it needs to be done in a way that doesn't harm the system,” Elwell said. “The system is working.”

The timeline also includes this March 19, when Representative Town Meeting members approved a 2022–23 municipal budget with a $285,600 ambulance service assessment figure sought by Rescue.

“As we look ahead, our members and staff remain dedicated to our 56-year tradition of providing exceptional emergency medical care,” Rescue's Hazelton wrote in an accompanying letter the town included in its annual report. “We are excited to be able to continue providing these services this year at the same per-capita rate as last year.”

But unbeknownst to residents, then newly-hired Town Manager Yoshi Manale had already reopened talks that his predecessor had completed.

Manale requested a breakdown of Rescue's administrative costs and insurance compensation and expressed concern that Hazelton wouldn't share financial information about the nonprofit. The press learned that's because the town manager didn't contact the provider's board of trustees, the only ones authorized to do so.

The Selectboard approved a $358,471 paving project a month later without requesting or requiring similar figures from the winning bidder.

In the initial news release, Manale, lacking Rescue's numbers, estimated the town would reap “a $500,000 to $700,000 net gain” in annual revenue by taking over EMS coverage and charges to insurers - a fact quickly challenged by numerous state experts, including those at a Vermont legislative committee meeting where Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, called Brattleboro's action “one of the worst decisions ever made.”

Municipal leaders went on to say that hiring Golden Cross for $75,000 would save more than $200,000 compared with Rescue's $285,600 request - a supposed windfall since eaten up by a $70,000 severance package the Selectboard gave Manale to resign after only five months on the job, $48,020 in lost dispatch fees, and the $38,721 feasibility study of the takeover plan, awarded to a Wyoming consulting firm in May.

The town now may spend $50,000 more to increase its Golden Cross service from two to three ambulances. If leaders approve that cost, their collective expenditures will equal Rescue's original request - and may rise if firefighters charged with more EMS work seek changes to their contracts.

In response, municipal leaders say they were “forced” to leave Rescue in part because of an “incendiary” March 25 letter in which the private nonprofit provider told the town it wouldn't work for free.

“We're the town and we can hire contractor A or contractor B,” board member Elizabeth McLoughlin summed up the situation at a recent meeting. “Contractor A sent us a nasty letter, so we go with contractor B.”

The fact municipal leaders keep citing a single piece of paper for derailing a nearly 60-year relationship have raised eyebrows in a community that's home to World Learning, whose campus has promoted diplomacy programs for 90 years, and 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams, who brought disparate countries together for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Residents also question why leaders so incensed by a provoking letter would in their reply charge Hazelton, former chair of the southeastern EMS district board, with being “unprofessional to use that authority to attempt to deny the [Brattleboro Fire Department] its new license,” even though he had abstained from leading and voting on the matter.

“The license application was still pending because it was not complete,” Will Moran, EMS chief for the Vermont Department of Health, confirmed at a subsequent district board meeting.

Oeser recently spoke with Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow when he heard municipal leaders were scheduled to meet with Rescue to inquire about backup coverage - a multi-hour session that ended with more disagreement.

“I suggested maybe you should have a third party in the room,” Oeser said. “The answer went on for a good two or three minutes about how it wasn't his decision and he had to get all the other Selectboard members to agree and they may not want to do that.”

“Why would there be that much resistance just to have a neutral set of eyes?” he asked.

The resulting multihour session ended without agreement (although interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland wrote the provider a conciliatory note afterward, saying “we look forward to rebuilding a healthy working relationship” and “we are open to negotiating a price for EMS mutual aid.”)

Oeser, a persistent online presence at board meetings, was tempted to contact Jim Finger, chief executive officer of the Vermont Ambulance Association, after the four-decade EMS expert told VTDigger this month that he had never encountered such a hastily executed plan.

“That's exactly where I'm at,” Oeser said. “What the heck is going on?”

Brattleboro residents are set to find out, as the local fire department and Golden Cross will take over EMS calls Friday. Municipal leaders, in presenting their plan, said they only needed two ambulances. Then VTDigger reported that nearby Rockingham, served by Golden Cross, has sought outside aid at least 40 times so far this year because of the provider's challenge in fulfilling a similar two-vehicle contract.

In response, Brattleboro leaders said the comparison was “apples to oranges” because Rockingham's contract also covers Bellows Falls and Saxtons River (two villages that are wholly part of the town) - as well as nearby Athens and Grafton.

But add Rockingham's 4,832 residents to Athens' 380 and Grafton's 645, and the 5,857 total is only half of Brattleboro's population of 12,184. And until the news report, no Brattleboro official had contacted Rockingham's municipal manager to learn the problem was less about geography and more about a nationwide shortage of staff - a challenge that Brattleboro understands, as it is advertising openings itself.

Leaders hoped to appease the public last week by accepting a third Golden Cross ambulance for a free three-month trial, all while downplaying any real need.

“Golden Cross has extended an additional offer,” said a public memo that many people read as initiated by the ambulance company. Only after questioning did one official acknowledge the third vehicle was sought by the town.

“I want to make clear that Golden Cross didn't call up and say, 'Hey, I can give you a third ambulance for free,'” Brattleboro Fire Chief Leonard Howard said at the most recent Selectboard meeting. “[I], making sure that the public is protected, called Golden Cross and said, 'If I need a third ambulance, can I get one?'”

It was a rare swerve from the company line.

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