Fire department looks for voter support for ambulance (2/18/10)

Feb. 18, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

In an emergency situation, timing can be critical. If an individual suffers a life-threatening injury or medical incident, every second counts in transporting them to a hospital. If Williston voters agree to this year’s municipal budget, which includes a line item for a new ambulance service, emergency response times will drastically decrease, according to Williston firefighters and rescue personnel.

“Twenty-one minutes I waited for an ambulance for a person who was unresponsive, and the hospital was only six minutes away,” Firefighter Sean Soper told a group of Williston residents at a public forum last week.

While Soper’s example is considered extreme, long wait times for out-of-town ambulances compromise the health and safety of Williston residents, said Fire Department Chief Ken Morton.

On Thursday, Feb. 11, the Williston Fire Department held its first of three public forums geared toward dispelling myths and convincing voters an ambulance service is crucial in improving safety. Along with the forums, town officials organized neighborhood meetings and wrote letters in the Observer in recent weeks, hoping to gain support for the controversial budget line item. 

The department conducted a second meeting on Saturday, Feb. 13. The third and last forum is scheduled for Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Williston Fire Station.

Morton told the audience of about 10 residents there are many negative perceptions floating around town in regards to the proposed service. At issue is the Selectboard choosing to list the service under the municipal budget and not giving voters a say through a separate ballot item.

“I’m only here to present good data and good numbers,” Morton said. “I want people to understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”

But the way it could be accomplished irks some residents. Resident Michael Mauss told Morton, Town Manager Rick McGuire, and Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi that it should have been a ballot item like the last ambulance service request in 2007. Voters turned down a service at that time.

“It should have been done in an open fashion,” Mauss said. “Since you made a precedent of voting on it before, you should have held to that precedent.”

Much of the data presented centered around ambulance response times and the number of emergency calls Williston averages each year. Morton said Williston averages 751 such calls annually, which he noted is one of the highest averages in Chittenden County.

Williston’s primary ambulance service comes from St. Michael’s College in Colchester. Morton said the squad averages an 11- to 12-minute response time. But as firefighters pointed out, rush hours create longer rescue responses. The figure does not take into account the additional six to seven minutes it takes to reach Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

In his presentation, Morton noted that Williston’s ambulance service would be the the sixth busiest of eight in Chittenden County.

Response times to medical calls would decrease to under five minutes, he added.

“We can trim seven minutes off the response time,” Morton said. “That’s huge.”

While residents in attendance appeared supportive of quicker response times, they remained concerned over cost. Morton said the ambulance service would cost nearly $232,000, while earning a little more than $260,000 in revenue. Morton based his revenue numbers on a “conservative assumption” of 750 emergency calls per year.

Mauss disputed Morton’s numbers, saying with health insurance costs rising, more Vermonters are losing their coverage. A lack of insurance means a smaller collection rate for the service. Morton believes Williston would receive fees from 80 percent of all ambulance calls, while Mauss figured it closer to 50 percent.

Vehicle costs also remain an issue. Morton said the department plans to sell two older fire trucks to pay for a used ambulance, while opting for a $39,000 bond to pay for a second. Depending on revenue generated, the department would hire one EMT in July, with a possible second responder in January 2011. Morton said the figures represent efforts to keep costs down.

“We look at the budget as a budget, not a spending account,” he said.

Morton hoped Thursdays forum would convince people to support the ambulance service and, as a result, approve the municipal budget. A few attendees expressed their support upon hearing Morton’s presentation. Sue Powers said she’s heard a lot of backing from town residents who believe the service will greatly improve safety in Williston.

“I think people are saying we need to have this,” Powers said. “My perception is that (the budget) will pass.”