EMERGENCY RESPONSE: Richford opts out of district
Towns scramble to maintain patient services
ENOSBURG FALLS — Emergency medical personnel, local government officials, and a representative from the Northwest Regional Planning Commission met Monday evening to discuss the possibility of combining emergency response resources.
While most of the handful of locals in attendance at the Enosburgh Emergency Services Building supported the idea, Richford Selectboard Chair Linda Collins announced that her town would not be participating.
“I’m here at the direction of the Richford Selectboard. We are not interested in a regional ambulance service,” Collins said.
She cited a number of reasons including the level of patient care her town’s ambulance service already provides, the caliber of volunteers and staff, and the policy in Richford that money earned above and beyond expenses goes into the ambulance equipment fund.
Collins noted that the Richford Ambulance Service is doing well.
“The board said if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Collins said.
Richford also provides full-time ambulance service for Berkshire and half-time coverage for Montgomery. Those contracts with Richford came after Enosburgh, which had provided served those two towns, hiked prices from $19 to $28 per capita annually.
Richford has a contract with the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH), to manage the ambulance service.
When asked about the funding and staffing for the ambulance operation in Richford, Collins said, “I don’t know, I’m not in charge of the ambulance.”
NOTCH finance director Kathy Benoit explained this morning that nine people work for the ambulance service, all considered part-time employees. They are on-call and staff regular shifts.
In addition to a percentage of billing charges paid to NOTCH, the organization will receive $9,900 in 2013 as a flat management fee from Richford Town.
Benoit said management of the ambulance by NOTCH includes coverage and development of a schedule for 24/7 manning of ambulances, budgeting and approval with vendors for supplies, ordering and stocking those supplies, negotiating coverage with other towns (for mutual aid, for example), managing licensure of staff, monitoring and setting fees, maintenance of third-party payers (such as Medicare and Medicaid), and maintaining equipment.
Later in the meeting Enosburgh Ambulance director Dean Scott offered that Collins needed to gather the facts about her town’s ambulance service.
“I don’t care, see this is where you’re wrong. I don’t care,” she said.
Collins maintained that NOTCH runs the ambulance service. But it is town-owned and a town liability, others pointed out.
When questions about full-time staff persisted, Collins replied, “Well, I don’t know, we’re doing well.”
However, Scott noted that his crew had responded to Richford about 40 times this year for calls because Richford staff was busy on other calls. When that happens Enosburgh may be paid from insurance companies for transport, but also may receive no reimbursement at all.
By forming a regional service, first responders hope to solve the staffing shortcomings throughout Franklin County.
Todd Cosgrove, of Bakersfield Fire and First Response, said the planning group is trying to create a larger staffing pool. He noted that areas of southern are already doing this, with areas divided into public safety districts.
Officials at the meeting pointed out that while a regional mutual aid agreement reduces strain during busy periods, staffers are needed to keep ambulances running and in saving lives.
Greg Stebbins, chair of the Sheldon Selectboard, explained that management of the Enosburgh Ambulance service was the issue.
As previously reported in the Messenger, Enosburgh Town operates its ambulance service and has been criticized by neighboring towns’ officials, especially in regard to cost increases.
Multiple attendees at the meeting noted that no one from Enosburgh Selectboard was at the meeting.
Scott and other emergency responders noted that patient care suffers when the closest ambulance is not the ambulance under contract to respond in case of emergency.
Cosgrove said, for example, that patients in Sheldon must wait about 40 minutes for AmCare Ambulance in St. Albans to respond, though Enosburgh could be at the same location in about 10 minutes.
Stebbins said that no one will deny the need for more emergency services, and with more and more improvements to the nearby Jay Peak Resort, the eastern Franklin County roads are becoming busier.
“Everyone expects when they call 911, someone will be here to take care of my problems” within a short wait time, Cosgrove added.
Utilizing NOTCH as Richford has or a third-party to take over operations was one option for combining forces, as explained to the group by NRPC’s Catherine Dimitruk.
Other options included an interlocal or inter-municipal contract. Franklin, Swanton, and Highgate, who hope to share ownership of a Highgate hockey arena, are currently mulling the idea of an interlocal contract.
One takeaway from the meeting was the need to attract staff and volunteers, whether a unification occurs or not.
Scott explained emergency personnel’s employment has changed over the years, with less people joining the field and higher-level training required while the job pays little.
“Nobody’s going to want to go to somebody bleeding in below-zero (temperatures) for minimum wage,” Scott said.
No decisions were made at the gathering. NRPC will prepare a number of options then meet with the group again to discuss their feasibility.