June 23, 2011By Adam White
It didn’t take long for the Williston ambulance service to be put to the ultimate test.
Less than 90 days after the service first went into operation last summer, a call came in from the town’s retail district: a middle-aged man was suffering cardiac arrest at the Christmas Tree Shops in Maple Tree Place. With two of their own ambulances ready to go, Williston EMTs were able to deliver the patient to Fletcher Allen Health Care within 14 minutes of receiving the call.
“When we reached the scene, he was clinically dead,” shift officer Sean Soper said. “And later, he ended up walking out of the hospital. The response time we saved very well could have been the difference.”
With its one-year anniversary approaching on July 1, the Williston ambulance service is regarded by those operating it as a hands-down success. Over the first five months of 2011, the service responded to 342 calls – putting it on pace for 839 calls over its first year in operation.
“The service has been very well received,” Fire Chief Ken Morton said. “We’ve gotten a number of ‘you saved my life’ letters, from people who are very thankful to have an ambulance five minutes away instead of 25 or 30.”
More often than not, time is the most critical factor in emergency medical services. Prior to implementing its own ambulance program, Williston relied on service from neighboring communities – despite the fact that it ranked fourth in call volume among towns in Chittenden County, behind only Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski.
“Before last July, we were the only (town) in the top 11 for call volume that didn’t have an ambulance in our community,” Morton said.
That not only increased response times to Williston emergencies; it also stretched the capabilities of neighboring departments. Starting July 1, the town will be in a position to start paying some of those neighbors back.
“In year two of our service, we will become part of the mutual aid matrix,” Morton said. “We will be available to go to Hinesburg, St. George, Richmond and other communities as a second ambulance when needed.”
Williston’s extensive emergency medical capabilities stem from two things: the decision to purchase two ambulances last year – a new model and a six-year-old used one – and staffing. Morton estimated that the department, on 98 percent of calls, retains a capable backup crew in-house after the first ambulance goes out.
“Our ambulances have never been out of service here, and that’s unique,” call EMT Ben Burdet said.
Morton added that on approximately 30 occasions this year, the department has dispatched both ambulances simultaneously.
“I think that is a huge compliment to the people we have,” Morton said. “We’re capable and we’re fast – if a call comes in for EMS, we will have an ambulance out the door in 30 seconds.”
But in every emergency, response time is only part of the equation. Burdet recalled the automobile crash that took the life of Williston’s Dylan Peters on April 7, and how the ambulance crew being on the scene in mere minutes was not enough to save the teenager’s life.
“Realistically, you can’t save everyone,” Burdet said. “But an EMT’s definition of saving a life is getting them to the hospital as quickly as you can.”
By that definition, Williston’s ambulance service has been a success. But using another popular definition – that of dollars – the service hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.
Collections over the first year of service have fallen well short of projections, leading town manager Rick McGuire to warn the Selectboard about a potential $50,000 deficit by the end of this fiscal year. Morton said that conservative spending and some reallocation of funds have ensured that the department will come in under its budget, and that Williston may simply need to accept that such a service is going to cost money.
“In most places, ambulance is seen as an essential service that the community pays for,” Morton said. “We tried to set ours up to be revenue producing, so it could support itself – but in the first year, we didn’t see the revenue from it that we were expecting.
“The numbers can be painted in a really horrible light … but the reality is that we’ve succeeded in providing an essential service to the community.”
Some financial streamlining may also help the bottom line. Morton said that in the past, the town would employ first-response efforts – involving training, equipment and medical supplies – on local calls. But he added that the ambulance that eventually delivered the patient to the hospital would be the only party able to collect on the incident. Williston will now be able to bill for every one of its EMT calls in town, as well as any calls it responds to as part of the mutual aid matrix.
Morton and his subordinates hope that the collection issue stabilizes a bit in the service’s second year, especially considering that the department has reached a level of stability in which no major purchases or additions are on the horizon. But even with the ledger-sheet headaches, the town’s ambulances are considered well worth it.
“Even if we haven’t met all of our financial goals, the value to the community has gone far beyond that,” Soper said.