Brattleboro’s EMS plan lacks state license, local backup just weeks before start

BRATTLEBORO — A plan to drop the town’s nearly 60-year contract with Rescue Inc. for a lower-priced emergency medical service lacks a state license just weeks before its scheduled July 1 start.

Complicating matters, the current private nonprofit provider says it won’t respond to local calls without negotiated compensation after June 30.

The Brattleboro Selectboard, following a recommendation from Town Manager Yoshi Manale before his recent resignationabruptly hired the for-profit Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, New Hampshire, this spring as part of a potential transition plan for the local fire department to take over EMS duties.

The Vermont Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Medical Services is reviewing Golden Cross’ application for a license, which requires sufficient backup in case the provider’s two ambulances stationed in Brattleboro are busy.

“If someone is facing a life-threatening situation such as cardiac arrest, a significant hemorrhage or choking, a half an hour can be the difference between life and death,” state EMS Chief Will Moran told VTDigger. “Ideally, we would see the applicant making decisions about who’s going to be providing mutual aid that takes that into consideration.”

But that question has grown harder to answer, as the private nonprofit Rescue, feeling burned by Brattleboro leaders dropping its contract with little notice or public debate, said this week it won’t respond to local calls unless contractually obligated to as of July 1.

“We are not providing uncompensated service for the town,” Rescue Chief of Operations Drew Hazelton confirmed to VTDigger.

Hazelton has told his district’s remaining 14 communities they won’t have to pay more money this year to offset Brattleboro’s last-minute pullout — nor would Windham County’s largest EMS provider assist the latter municipality for free.

“Is it reasonable to dissolve a 56-year relationship without any discussion and then ask us to provide the backup coverage you need?” Hazelton said last month.

Brattleboro leaders nonetheless wrote Rescue last Friday seeking “uncompensated mutual aid” — a request that interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland summed up as “a starting point for a discussion.”

In response, Rescue said it was open to offering Brattleboro paid assistance under the stipulation that local leaders acknowledge their role in the “damaged nature” of their working relationship.

The EMS provider also said it needs to know the number and nature of calls Brattleboro anticipates it would seek help with — something local leaders have yet to answer.

“We can’t commit to providing service,” Hazelton said, “until we know what we’re being asked to provide.”

The question of backup isn’t a hypothetical. The smaller nearby town of Rockingham, served by Golden Cross for a decade, has sought outside support about 40 times during the past five months of 2022 because of the for-profit provider’s challenge in fulfilling its two-ambulance contract.

“To be blunt, they don’t always have the ability to staff two units, and we’ve had to call mutual aid more than we like,” Rockingham Municipal Manager Scott Pickup said. “We were a little caught by surprise that Golden Cross was such an aggressive bidder in Brattleboro. Operationally, that seems like a lot. I hope it works, but I have my concerns.”

Rockingham reported almost 700 EMS calls this past year, compared with Brattleboro’s total of nearly 2,800.

Golden Cross didn’t respond to three requests for comment over the past three days.

Brattleboro officials have yet to publicly detail their backup plan, although the local fire department told its state district EMS board last month that, after Rescue, it turns to Keene, New Hampshire, and Greenfield, Massachusetts — each a half-hour away.

At a five-hour meeting Tuesday night, the selectboard didn’t publicly address the seriousness of the situation, even though several townspeople did.

“It feels to the community that it is policy by occurrence and there would be more discussion for changing something so significant,” Carolyn Conrad said.

In response, several board members complained that the press hadn’t fully covered their two main reasons for the switch.

The first is that the town can run the service itself and avoid paying Rescue’s annual $285,600 bill — although a $38,700 feasibility study just commissioned has yet to find if the takeover will cost less or more.

The second is that board members didn’t like the wording of a March 25 letter in which Rescue 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 said Tuesday. “Contractor A sent us a nasty letter, so we go with contractor B.”

The state isn’t concerned with money or manners but instead the medical soundness of Brattleboro’s plan. Although Vermont’s EMS chief summed up Rescue as “a robust service with robust resources,” he noted the private nonprofit was under no obligations to help the town with its takeover once its contract expires June 30.

“There is no rule that says they have to respond,” Moran said.

The state is scheduled to discuss the Golden Cross license application Thursday and decide whether to approve it or ask for changes as early as next week.

“It’s our goal to support the applicant through the process,” Moran said, “and, at the same time, keep the public’s interest in mind.”

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