Bristol Rescue at a crucial crossroads
BRISTOL — Faced with a diminishing number of volunteers, the Bristol Rescue Squad is at a crossroads: Unless the squad adds a paid staff member to its currently all-volunteer roster, President Brian Fox is worried the ambulance corps won’t be able to meet the demand for its services in the Five Town region.
That concern is sending Fox out to each of the five towns the rescue squad serves — Bristol, New Haven, Monkton, Starksboro and Lincoln — with a request for additional funding to drum up enough money to hire a full-time EMT. For the last all-volunteer ambulance squad in the county, the request illustrates a statewide shift from volunteer to paid emergency services.
According to Dan Manz, the emergency medical services director for the Vermont Department of Health, the pendulum in Vermont is swinging toward a model for ambulance squads that includes a hybrid of volunteer and paid emergency responders.
Jim Finger, the president of the Vermont Ambulance Association, pointed out that maintaining a strong volunteer staff is particularly difficult during the daytime in rural or “bedroom” communities, where volunteers frequently travel outside of their town for work. Manz said paid responders often step in to act as the first line of defense during the workweek, when volunteers are especially hard to come by.
That’s certainly the case in Bristol, Fox said. The Bristol squad requires that volunteers be within five minutes of their headquarters when a volunteer is on call. For volunteers, that means spending their 12-hour shift in close proximately to the North Street center. During the workweek, Fox said, it’s hard to find volunteers with the free time to man the station.
With just 22 members right now — down from a high of 43 around five years ago — the squad’s volunteers are putting in long hours. Just joining the squad requires a large time commitment: The emergency medical technician (EMT) training course saps up 200 hours before a volunteer is certified to go out on emergency calls. After that, volunteers have to put in a minimum of 12 hours of training a year to maintain their certification.
Training aside, the squad asks that volunteers spend a minimum of 60 hours a month on call, requesting everyone take at least one 12-hour shift each week and one 12-hour weekend shift per month. Some volunteers are putting in as many as four or five shifts each week.
“Everybody’s life is busier (these days),” Fox said, trying to understand why volunteerism at the Bristol squad is in decline. “Free time is at a precious minimum.”
CALLING FOR AID
But the squad’s low numbers mean that even long volunteer hours aren’t meeting the demand for the ambulance corps’ services. Recently, Bristol has been relying more and more on “mutual aid” from the nearby Vergennes Area Rescue Squad and Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association.
Mutual aid is designed so that neighboring squads can send additional ambulances to particularly bad accidents or emergencies, but in some cases Bristol has had to rely on Vergennes and Middlebury as the primary responder to a call. Occasionally, Fox said, there just aren’t enough volunteers on hand to send out a Bristol ambulance, even if the call originates in the Bristol service area.
Given that the Bristol Rescue Squad covers a large swath of the county, it can take the ambulance team as much as 30 minutes to reach some of the more remote areas it covers. If an outside ambulance association has to pick up that slack, theoretically the wait for an ambulance to arrive could stretch to an hour.
For Fox, this is troubling news. Every year, he explained, the agency’s license from the state is contingent upon a promise to provide ambulance services 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. Right now, the squad isn’t meeting that promise, putting the squad’s license at risk were the state to crack down on its licensing requirements. Middlebury or Vergennes squads are responding to Bristol area emergency calls as many as five or six times a month, depending on the month.
On average, the Bristol squad responds to anywhere between 600 and 700 calls a year.
Manz said the state isn’t likely to bolt the doors shut anytime soon, but said he takes it seriously when an agency can’t meet its obligations. Calling in mutual aid too often puts a strain on other agencies, Manz said, and could leave other regions short-handed if calls cropped up simultaneously.
Manz said Bristol’s decision to move to a combination of volunteer and paid staff is on the “normal evolutionary chain” that other agencies have followed, and had some optimistic news to share: In some cases, adding paid staff has relieved agencies under pressure, and has boosted volunteerism and revenue for ambulance squads.
That’s because, frequently, employees can streamline insurance reimbursements and other administrative duties, as well as boost recruitment efforts that might have fallen by the wayside when the organization was struggling to meet its obligations.
The two other rescue squads in Addison County — VARS and MVAA — have already hired employees, expanding their squads to include volunteers as well as paid professions.
Chuck Welch is the operations coordinator at VARS, and one of two employees. (The squad employs Welch full-time, and recently brought on a part-time worker as well.)
Welch said that volunteer numbers are down in Vergennes, just as they are in Bristol, and the volunteers the organization does have on its roster are having to work even harder than before.
“We still have a lot of volunteers that are doing a boatload,” Welch said. “We could easily put on two full-time, but we don’t. We don’t have the money.”
Back in Bristol, Fox said he’d still like to see volunteer numbers go up, even if the squad adds a full-time member. Back when the roster stood closer to 40 members, he said, he felt comfortable when a call went out that enough volunteers would be available to respond properly to the emergency.
Adding a paid staff member would let the squad president breathe a sigh of relief, though. Fox hopes the volunteer nature of the squad stays intact, and the paid employee wouldn’t have voting privileges or act as the primary crew chief on most calls. Those roles, Fox said, would still ideally fall to volunteers, who make up the heart of the organization.
But adding a paid employee won’t be cheap: Fox will be asking each of the five towns the rescue squad serves to contribute at least $10,000 toward the cost of hiring a certified EMT. In Bristol’s case, that would mean providing a total of $17,500 to the squad, which already receives an annual contribution from each of the five towns. Smaller towns contribute as little as $4,000 to the squad currently, and rather than ask for a jump to $14,000, Fox said the squad may request a $10,000 minimum allocation.
The rest, he said, he can try to scrounge from other corners of the squad’s operating budget. This year, the spending plan came in around $175,000, almost all of which is used up each year.
Fox anticipates needing to bring in $50,000 to hire a full-time EMT at $30,000 or $35,000 a year. He said he knows he’s asking towns for money at a hard time, but hopes town residents will be understanding when it comes time to vote on the allocations on Town Meeting Day.
“I’m asking for money at the worst economic time in the world, that I’ve seen at least,” Fox said. “I don’t think (towns) are thrilled or happy about it, but I think they understand why I’m asking, and the need that we’re asking for. It’s not just a frivolous request. You never know who is going to have to call for an ambulance.”
At this point, Fox said, hiring a staff member to meet the current demand looks like the only choice.
“We fought off having to hire someone for a lot of years, because everybody liked the thought of being a 100 percent volunteer organization,” Fox said. “But … if we’re going to keep our doors open, this is essentially the route we’re going to have to go.”