Proposed ambulance service stalled for now but not scrapped

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Although the Selectboard decided last week to shelve funding for a new municipal ambulance service, the proposal figures to receive keen attention from the board in the coming months.

Fire Chief Ken Morton, who heads both the fire and rescue departments, said he had hoped the Selectboard would push to institute the proposal this year, but understood the desire to take more time to study the plan. Morton said he was pleased the plan was simply on the table and would be considered for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

The ambulance proposal, which was devised by Morton and others in the fire and rescue departments, aims to significantly reduce fire and rescue response times in Williston through the addition of two ambulances and nine full-time fire and rescue employees. The fire and rescue workers would respond to both fire and rescue calls with support, depending on the circumstances, from on-call personnel.

Part of the funding for the service would come from charging patients transported in the ambulances.

Peter Soons, chief of St. Michael’s Rescue, which currently provides the bulk of Williston’s ambulance service, said the proposal has merit, and he knows the town will eventually have to start its own ambulance service to accommodate its continuing growth. However, Soons argues Williston should consider maintaining its ties with St. Michael’s Rescue for the time being.

“We still provide a good service at a good cost,” Soons said.

Soons said the proposal to purchase ambulances and hire full-time emergency personnel in Williston will not significantly improve rescue services. He said the ambulance proposal appears to be geared toward funding the Williston Fire Department’s move to full-time firefighters.

Morton denied the claim, saying the ability to deliver an ambulance to the scene of an emergency significantly faster will provide big benefits.

“This is not an attack on St. Michael’s Rescue,” Morton said. “We just think we can enhance our service and do a better job with rescue calls. We can better our response times and handle our patients more efficiently.”

Soons said a misperception of St. Michael’s Rescue is that it is based a long distance from Williston because it is in Colchester.

“We are right on the South Burlington line,” Soons said.

Soons said that the response times from St. Michael’s Rescue vary depending on the location of the emergency, but the department does not record its response times to Williston. Morton said he tracked response times for the ambulance study by writing them down from time to time, compiling informed estimates.

Under the current service, a Williston first-response unit arrives at an emergency in a little more than four minutes, according to the ambulance study. A transporting St. Michael’s Rescue ambulance arrives in about 12 minutes, the study says.

The new proposal would bring an ambulance to the scene around the same time the first-response crew arrives.

In addition, fire responses would drop from more than 12 minutes to less than five minutes in the overnight hours when there currently are no personnel on duty at the fire station.

Soons said the critical factor in emergency medical events is the response time for first responders, not necessarily that of the ambulance. He said first responder personnel can open an obstructed airway, administer CPR or apply a defibrillator. Therefore, he said, the response times for St. Michael’s Rescue ambulances are more than adequate in tandem with Williston’s first-response service.

However, Jim Hendry, Williston’s full-time firefighter and emergency medical technician, said there are numerous ways a faster response time from the ambulance is important.

Hendry said when the ambulance and first-response units arrive close to each other and originate from the same department, it allows for much smoother treatment of the patient. The ambulance staff and first-response personnel are familiar with each other and operate under the same guidelines.

There also does not need to be a formal transfer of care. In fact, the first-responder can ride in the ambulance, continuing to administer treatment, and then relay pertinent information to staff at the hospital.

Hendry said there are also instances when treatment might be delayed because of the wait for an ambulance. For instance, he said a first-responder would not start an IV in the field if the temperature were frigid, but would wait until the patient was in a warm ambulance.

“Any time you have a delay in transport, you have a delay in getting a patient to the hospital to get definitive medical care,” Hendry said. “That’s important.”