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Vergennes Area Rescue is in need

VERGENNES AREA RESCUE Squad President JOSH Deppman is visiting the communities the agency serves to seek a 2023 funding boost and discuss the ambulance service’s future. Lack of volunteers and a non-competitive pay scale have made it difficult for VARS to provide 24/7 coverage. Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

VERGENNES — The volunteer president of the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad, Josh Deppman, is holding a series of meetings with the leaders of the communities VARS serves to deliver a critical message.

That message: Change at VARS will be necessary, sooner rather than later, if the agency is to continue to meet its mission of supplying ambulance and emergency medical services to Addison, Panton, Vergennes, Waltham and Ferrisburgh, and to a lesser extent Monkton and New Haven.

Deppman is saying the immediate need is for more paid professional help if VARS is to return to providing 24/7 coverage to those communities, something the agency has been unable to do in recent months with a roster of one full-time employee, eight part-timers, and only seven regular volunteers.

VARS has a daily schedule of two shifts that run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Deppman said part-time paid staff typically work two or three shifts a week.

To fill that schedule regularly would mean more full-time employees, he said.

“Realistically, we need to add another between three and four full-time positions,” Deppman told the Independent.

That’s a message he also recently delivered to the Addison and Ferrisburgh selectboards; Deppman is working to get on the Vergennes City Council’s early September agenda and will reach out to Panton and Waltham next.

The current $15 per resident fee communities pay annually to VARS would not cover those hires. Deppman is floating a proposal to double that fee to $30, which he said would raise an additional $170,000 a year.

Selectboards won’t work on their next budgets for months, and final decisions would be made by towns’ voters in March and by the city council in June. But Deppman said he was well received in Addison, and Ferrisburgh board members joined him in brainstorming VARS’s future on Aug. 16.

“The good point is all the towns we have talked to so far are all in support and want to know what needs to be done to be viable,” Deppman said.

In Ferrisburgh, he said Addison selectboard members told him they would “stand behind” VARS. Ferrisburgh board members said they understood the squad’s situation and saw the need for change.

Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager, someone familiar with VARS’s operations, was at the Aug. 18 meeting to back up Deppman. Wager described the rescue squad’s status bluntly.

“The squad is dying,” Wager told the board.

ROOTS OF THE ISSUES

A central problem is that VARS is chartered to work as a volunteer agency, a model that neighboring agencies such as Middlebury Regional Emergency Medical Services and the Charlotte rescue squad have abandoned.

Technically, VARS has 25 volunteers on its roster, Deppman said, but only a little more than a third of them make a regular commitment. And recruiting more to take the many hours of education needed is problematic and prevents some potential helpers from stepping forward.

“This is a national shortage,” Deppman told the Ferrisburgh selectboard. “You’re seeing it everywhere.”

VARS has come under some fire for not fulfilling its 24/7 mission, but it’s not for lack of effort. Deppman said in some months he has volunteered 160 hours to fill shifts, and other volunteers have worked long hours.

“It’s the lack of help, lack of volunteers,” he said. “People don’t have the time. With the way the economy is going they’re working two or three jobs just to make it. They don’t have the time they used to to volunteer.”

VARS has a financial incentive to stay open more hours. Deppman and Wager estimate the agency has lost $40,000 in revenue this year to Charlotte rescue, which fills in when VARS can’t respond.

In the short term, Deppman hopes to hire more part-timers to cover shifts to allow VARS to capture that lost revenue, at least until next year, when if all goes well, VARS can expand its full-time staff.

But to do so, VARS almost certainly would have to increase its wages to be competitive with neighboring rescue squads, all of whom pay up to $5 more per hour than the $18 VARS offers. And for full-timers next year, the cost would be more than just wages.

“We are competing with District Three, which is all up in Chittenden County, where they have higher pay rates. Being able to do that, being able to offer benefits, health insurance, retirement, what that all adds up to isn’t going to be cheap,” Deppman said.

CHARTER ISSUES

And there’s another issue. Deppman said under VARS’s bylaws, which date back to its founding in 1969, major decisions — those would include a transition to a predominantly paid staff or, as some have suggested, becoming a quasi-municipal entity — require a majority vote of the agency’s volunteers.

Paid staff have no voice, and even Deppman’s input has a limit: As president he can only vote to break a tie.

Currently, according to Deppman, only a few volunteers faithfully attend regular meetings. But more than a dozen would have to show up and approve any plans for change.

Deppman believes paid staff should have a say, and that the time is here for VARS to do what it takes to follow in the footsteps of ambulance services in Middlebury and Charlotte.

“There’s a lot involved in it, with changing the service manual, and the by-laws were written back when you did have all the volunteers doing it,” Deppman said. “So it needs to be changed so that everybody who is there is equal. They’re all members, they all can vote and say what needs to be done.”

The good news is the volunteers who take regular shifts understand the issues, Deppman said.

“They’re all on board with (the fact that) we need to move forward somehow,” he said.

Ultimately, moving forward could mean quasi-municipal status, such as that enjoyed by the region’s water districts. The Ferrisburgh selectboard discussed with Deppman and Wager that possibility on Aug. 18, and Chair Jessica James soon afterward sought out information from the Addison County Regional Planning Commission about what the move would entail.

The answer: A lot of time, effort and paperwork, plus approval by the Legislature.

“She did send me the information,” Deppman said. “There’s just pages on top of pages that you have to have done.”

But it would allow VARS access to a wider range of grants for equipment, vehicles, and hiring support, plus a less costly way to provide employee benefits.

“It would be cheaper to look toward a municipality,” Deppman said.

Such a status change could be a long-term goal. In the meantime, Deppman said it’s critical that interim moves are made, most notably an improved cash flow that would allow the agency to maintain itself.

“If we can at least get the per capita rate changed, we should be able to at least sustain on a volunteer basis … at least in the process of figuring out our next step,” he said.

“We’ve got a good group of people there, and they want to see Vergennes (rescue) go back to where it was, fully staffed and there was no problem trying to get shifts covered …

“24-7 on the towns. That’s what we’re trying to get for everybody.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated since its original posting to correct the error where it said the Bristol Rescue Squad had abandoned its status as a volunteer organization. Bristol Rescue Squad has not changed its charter and, although it has a paid chief and deputy and employs a few per diem employees, the organization is very much staffed principally by volunteers and actively recruits volunteers and supports them by paying for their EMS training, but not their volunteer calls.

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