Fewer volunteers, changes to laws threaten rural ambulance service
by Jack Deming
Jan 31, 2013 | 3192 views | 1 1 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Whitingham ambulance waits outside its garage in Jacksonville.            Courtesy WASI Inc.
The Whitingham ambulance waits outside its garage in Jacksonville. Courtesy WASI Inc.
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Members of the Whitingham Ambulance Service Inc. met with town officials from Whitingham and Halifax last Wednesday to discuss a proposed tax increase that would fund the employment of a full-time staff of licensed emergency medical technicians. This comes in the wake of an annual evaluation by the Vermont Department of Health’s office of emergency medical services that placed WASI on a 90-day conditional license, so they may address issues with staffing requirements, funding, and performance.

In recent years, staffing has become the number one issue for WASI, and with only nine volunteers to cover 140 calls last year, WASI president Christina Moore says the service is running at only a fraction of what it should be. “This is a systemic issue in rural Vermont,” said Moore. “The state determined we are not going to be able to maintain the operational readiness that’s required with the staff we have, and that’s a fair statement.”

Moore says in 1988 the WASI staff had nearly four times the number of volunteers it has now, and the service is expected to lose another staff member in 2013, bringing their volunteer roster to eight. The state has also changed its requirements for operating an ambulance service, obligating ambulances to have two state-licensed staff members trained to perform emergency medical services in the vehicle, which in turn requires more training.

Moore says that across the state, this has led to widespread use of illegal crew configuration, or in other words, an improper number of state-licensed EMTs responding to calls.

The WASI’s staffing problems are, according to Moore, due to a decline in population in the area, as well as a changing workforce. “There are trends showing a decline in population in this area of folks who are 44 years old and younger, and the income in this corner of the county is below New England, Vermont, and national averages, and Whitingham and Halifax are the extremes in this area,” said Moore.

“There are very few local employers and 56% of properties are owned by nonresidents in Halifax. If you join that with low wages and longer commutes, it really puts the squeeze on people who volunteer.”

WASI is proposing to solve their woes with a tax for Whitingham and Halifax residents that would fund a full-time staff of EMTs. According to a press release by WASI, “A paid staff would maintain 100% compliance with training requirements, state reporting requirements, and other tasks involved with supporting a community ambulance service. Such funding would require voters in both towns to approve a new tax.”

The press release also explains a full-time EMT staff would benefit the community in more than just emergency situations. “Paramedics and EMTs on duty can provide community services such as blood pressure clinics, monitoring patients with complex health issues, and responding more easily to public assist calls for falls.”

Moore says it would be a shared tax of $1 per household a day, and would be on par with other utilities and services that residents pay for. “The question is, is it worth having an ambulance service that can get to your house in 15-20 minutes?” said Moore. “I wish I had a best answer. The proposal we put out front, a paid full-time staff, is the first thing we thought of. Of the bad answers, that may be the best, and we’re open to other ideas.”

Halifax Selectboard member Edee Edwards was at the meeting, and says that it could be challenging to propose another tax on a community that was hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene. Edwards added that Whitingham Selectboard members were not present at the meeting and their input is a necessity before any plan could be considered, along with the opinions of her constituents.

“Our basic concern as a selectboard is that with anything that is a sizable new tax, we would want to hear from the citizens about what they felt about the options. We’d like to have the conversation with Whitingham first, then have a meeting that involved the citizens.”

Edwards would like to hear any ideas that her constituents have.

To Moore, keeping WASI operational is vital to the rural communities of Halifax and Whitingham. “Any other solution delays care,” said Moore. “Having an ambulance come from Brattleboro or Deerfield Valley Rescue to down near the Massachusetts state line adds 45 minutes to care. What we need is a solution, and a full-time staff funded by the community is just one possibility.”

Moore is also researching state funding. “The state funds a bus service to get skiers to a mountain, so why not an ambulance service to get residents to the hospital?”
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arikolson
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February 01, 2013
These communities are right on the state line. I am curious if it would be possible for the Whitingham/Halifax EMS (or dispatch) to coordinate with the crews that provide EMS service to Colrain and Heath, MA.