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Sharon May Look To Hartford For Rescue

  • Paramadic and administrator for South Royalton Rescue Squad, David Palmer works on paper work in his office in South Royalton, Vt., on July 24, 2015. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2017 12:00:15 AM
Modified: 5/29/2017 12:00:16 AM

South Royalton — After a period of turbulence for the South Royalton Rescue Squad, organization leaders are seeking to remove themselves from the authority of the local fire district and function under the auspices of the town government instead.

Meanwhile, the town of Sharon is considering switching its ambulance services to Hartford’s fire and rescue department, a move that could have big financial implications for the South Royalton squad as well as Tunbridge and Royalton, the other two towns it serves.

The Sharon Selectboard has solicited and received a written estimate of cost and response times from Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney, and could decide between the two services during its next meeting, scheduled for June 5, Sharon Selectwoman Mary Gavin said.

“I don’t have a clear sense of how the vote will go,” said Gavin, who said she personally favors sticking with the South Royalton Rescue Squad. “But I do think we’ve done a good job of doing due diligence, and I think we’ll have a full discussion about this.”

The proposal from Hartford, which already provides coverage to about 10 Sharon homes located near the town border, likely would cost less, Gavin said, though it’s difficult to compare two agencies’ different fee structures. Hartford would charge about $35 per capita, and if the department couldn’t get paid for a Sharon call by the patient or through the patient’s insurance company, it would pass those costs on to the town.

The South Royalton Rescue Squad, which has provided coverage to most of Sharon for the last 55 years, charges about $55 per capita, but would not charge the town for cases in which it could not successfully bill the patient or their insurance company.

Neither Gavin nor a South Royalton Rescue Squad administrator had an estimate of how much unbillable calls might cost Sharon over the course of a typical year, but Gavin said the amount would narrow, though not entirely close, the gap between the two per capita rates.

Hartford, which was recognized last week as the “Ambulance Service of the Year” by the Vermont Department of Health’s Emergency Medical Services Office, estimates that it could respond to the center of Sharon in 16 minutes, which is significantly longer than the nine-minute drive from the Royalton Fire Department.

Cooney said that, even if Sharon wanted to contract with his department, it might not make sense for Hartford.

“It’s an extension of Hartford’s services,” he said. “We’d need to present a proposal to the Hartford Selectboard and see what they say.”

David Palmer, who is the head of the South Royalton Rescue Squad, said he recognizes that Sharon needs to explore its options, but switching to Hartford would be a bad idea.

“I think they could save some money short term, but long term it would be a disaster,” he said.

One reason, he said, is that even aside from the ambulance response time, South Royalton’s 17 staff members live in areas that are better situated to serve Sharon at the drop of a hat. As an example, he pointed to a situation that occurred on a Wednesday night last month, when Palmer was at a Selectboard meeting, monitoring his walkie-talkie as a near-disaster unfolded.

At about 9 p.m., while the rescue squad’s lone ambulance was out on a call, a second call came in from Sharon, near the Norwich town line. An adult there had suffered a serious head injury.

Palmer said that receiving two calls at once was a rarity when he started working as a first responder in the 1990s, but it now happens roughly eight to 10 times a year, because of an overall pattern of increased call frequency. Because the South Royalton ambulance and on-duty staff were committed to the first call, the rescue squad called for mutual aid, but Hartford was involved in another emergency, and was unable to respond.

Four members of the South Royalton squad who were not on active duty dropped what they were doing, hopped in their personal vehicles, and rushed to the scene, administering medical care until an ambulance from Bethel arrived more than 30 minutes later.

“We do it consistently,” Palmer said. “We do it multiple times, when we have multiple calls, and people respond in personal vehicles and we provide care until we can get somebody else there.”

If Sharon went with Hartford, Palmer said, it would create a large budget gap for his service, which ran on a total operating budget of about $389,000 for FY16, which ended last June.

“I can’t foresee South Royalton and Tunbridge picking up that full tab,” Palmer said. “I’m not saying they wouldn’t, because I don’t know, but it would significantly increase expenses to those towns.”

Sharon’s decision comes just as the South Royalton Rescue Squad is trying to work through a rocky period with its governing organization, the Royalton Fire District #1 Prudential Committee.

In 2015, a move to turn the South Royalton Rescue Squad into a three-town service was rejected by Tunbridge voters, who didn’t want to give up coverage from the Chelsea-based First Branch Ambulance for the north end of town.

“We didn’t buy in on that,” said Mike McPhetres, a Tunbridge selectman. “We wanted them to stay the way they were.”

An exploratory committee for that three-town effort morphed into the South Royalton Rescue Advisory Board, a Royalton town committee that comprising representatives from all three towns.

That body, and the Rescue Squad, was met with tension by the Prudential Committee, which Palmer said was due in part to a lack of communication and in part because the advisory board had a broader focus, and different constituency, than the Prudential Committee.

“It’s a tiny foundation that you’re trying to put a mansion on. Rescue is too big for them. They’re great people. They’re smart people. But it’s just too big,” Palmer said. “They say yes or no, but it’s hard to make an educated decision when you’re not educated about all the issues. It’s just the center of South Royalton. It doesn’t even cover the entire village.”

Efforts to reach a representative from the Prudential Committee were unsuccessful.

In late 2016, unhappy with what he said were political decisions that were adversely affecting the organization, Palmer turned in a letter of resignation to the Prudential Committee, though he ultimately reconsidered and signed a two-year contract. Now, Palmer said, the squad has turned a corner.

“In my opinion, at the operational level, rescue is in great shape. Financially, rescue is in great shape,” he said. “It’s the overhead structure, is the weak point.”

Palmer has drafted a new governance structure for the squad, one that envisions the Prudential Committee relinquishing control, and handing it over to the Royalton Selectboard, which Palmer said would be better situated to involve Tunbridge and Sharon in decision-making for the group.

Gavin, who sits on the advisory board, said Palmer’s idea would be a “very potent organizational structure,” though it’s unclear whether the Royalton Selectboard is willing to take on the responsibility.

During a May 9 meeting, Royalton Selectman Tim Dreisbach said “the town staff is small and their time is already taken up with current projects,” according to Selectboard meeting minutes.

Other Selectboard members last week said that they are open to the idea, but need to hear more before they fully support such a measure.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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