Officials ponder next steps for ambulance (3/11/10)

Williston must obtain license, acquire vehicles

March 11, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

With funding secured, Williston officials now face the complexities of rolling out a new ambulance service.


    Observer photo by Greg Elias
A sign in front of the Williston Fire Department’s station expresses appreciation for voter approval of the municipal budget that included funding for a new ambulance service.

Voters last week approved a municipal budget for the fiscal year starting in July that includes $231,910 for the ambulance service. Fire Chief Ken Morton expects the ambulance will pay for itself by charging fees to patients’ insurers.

The town must now lease or purchase ambulances, equip the vehicles, hire new employees, negotiate a dispatching arrangement and navigate the state licensing process.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said he planned to meet with Morton this week to discuss the service and plan its launch. Morton, who just returned from vacation in Florida, was unavailable for comment on Monday.

On Tuesday, Morton told the Observer he “worked feverishly” the previous day to develop an outline for the ambulance service, and believes it will be ready on July 1.

Williston is currently served by out-of-town ambulance services, primarily St. Michael’s Rescue. First responders in Williston are dispatched when a 911 call is made, then an ambulance arrives separately and takes the patient to the hospital.

Adding an ambulance service based at the fire station on U.S. 2 in Williston will consolidate emergency responses. The town plans to lease a new ambulance and buy a second used vehicle outright. One employee will be hired, and a second staffer may be added later in the fiscal year.

Officials familiar with starting an ambulance service said while the process is involved, it can be accomplished fairly quickly if not easily.

Douglas Brent, chief of fire and emergency medical services in South Burlington, said voters approved funding for that city’s service in May 2004. By August, ambulances were responding to calls.

“The licensing went through without a hitch,” Brent said. “There were other things that did not go as smoothly.”

Among the hurdles in starting the South Burlington service was having people trained and ready to go in time for the launch, Brent said. Funding started in July, so new employees could not be hired until then. But then they needed to learn local streets and procedures, which took a few weeks.

It also took a while to locate and outfit a dependable used ambulance that could be used as a backup for the new ambulance. Brent said the used vehicle, located in Florida, had to be brought to Vermont and prepared for use.

“There are lots of moving parts,” Brent said of the process of starting an ambulance service. “Honestly, getting voters to approve funding was the easiest part.”

Though there are differences, Williston’s situation parallels South Burlington in one important way: Both had a first responder program in place before starting an ambulance service.

Williston already has a number of on-call personnel and some full-time firefighters trained as emergency medical technicians.

McGuire said adding an ambulance is really more of an expansion than a new service.

“In one sense, it’s not that much different than what we are already doing,” he said.

The Essex Police Department, which dispatches fire calls for Williston, has declined to dispatch for the new ambulance service. Williston is negotiating with another entity to provide combined fire and ambulance dispatching service. McGuire declined to provide specifics because publicity could affect the talks.

Dan Manz, chief of emergency medical services for the Vermont Health Department, said there is “nothing particularly complicated” about licensing a new ambulance service but it does involve a few legally mandated steps.

Williston will be required to run a legal notice of a public comment period and provide information about staffing, vehicles and communication facilities. An emergency medical services district board will review Williston’s license application.

The town could realistically expect to obtain a license by July 1 if it promptly files an application, Manz said.

McGuire said the town has already taken steps to fulfill the public notice requirement. McGuire said he will sit down with Morton to develop a flow chart showing all the tasks to be completed.

Can the town realistically hire a new employee, acquire two ambulances and get a license by July?

“Yes, but,” McGuire said, pausing several seconds before continuing. “Will you give me 10 days leeway?”