BRATTLEBORO — After a big dispute over their contract, the town is severing its ties with Rescue Inc.
In an announcement Monday, Brattleboro said “after careful consideration of various options, the Town will be shifting from a private provider to a joint Fire/EMS service, offering patient care from the scene to the hospital with transport service.”
“This Municipal Fire/EMS model is the most efficient and effective standard practice for the rapid delivery of medical care,” states the announcement. “It is currently being utilized in a highly successful manner by five of the six Vermont municipalities larger than Brattleboro and our neighbor in Keene, N.H.”
The announcement references how Rescue Chief of Operations Drew Hazelton informed the Select Board and Town Manager Yoshi Manale that Rescue Inc. would no longer be providing emergency medical services (EMS) for the town starting on July 1.
“At our meeting on Feb. 9,” Hazelton wrote to Manale in a letter last month obtained by the Reformer, “you advised me that the town of Brattleboro was no longer willing to continue their 56-year financial and political relationship (as a member town) with Rescue Inc. During this meeting you stated that Brattleboro was unwilling to pay the assessed rate; a rate unchanged from last year discussed at length at our annual town information meeting and adopted by our Board of Trustees.”
Hazelton called the town’s change in perspective “sudden and abrupt,” and “inconsistent” with statements made by former town manager Peter Elwell.
“During our meeting,” Hazelton wrote to Manale, “you stated that you were only willing to allow Rescue to continue providing service to the town without paying for those services at all, and that any shortfall should be shifted to the other communities that we serve. The town position is that Brattleboro already subsidizes those towns through fire department response.”
Hazelton said given the town’s position, Rescue Inc. would not be able to continue providing service to Brattleboro after the current contract ends on June 30.
In a letter written to Hazelton, Manale and Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said the town never suggested the town was ending the contract but only wanted justification for its assessment of $285,000 each year “as that amount is four times what towns of similar size to Brattleboro are paying for their provider.” They said they also questioned why Rescue’s calls for service fees are among the highest in the state.
“We wanted to see how Rescue Inc. spent $508,000 in administrative costs in 2019 and what formula you used to determine our assessment,” they wrote. “We know our share is based on population but needed to understand better how the formula for this determination is derived. Unfortunately, you denied that request.”
Manale told the Reformer, “As we do for all contract negotiations, we wanted to ensure the town had all relevant information to make an informed decision before entering into a contract.”
Manale and Goodnow took exception to a part of Hazelton’s letter accusing the Brattleboro Fire Department of “poor patient turnover, gender discrimination, verbal abuse and general lack of cooperation.”
“After an extensive internal investigation by our Human Resources department,” Manale and Goodnow wrote, “we found this to be without merit.”
They said BFD “usually arrives at the scene first, finishes existing procedures and consults with Rescue Inc. regarding the case at hand; a proper formal turnover.” According to the letter, Rescue Inc. and fire department staff were interviewed and complaints alleged by Hazelton were deemed “baseless.”
“You were contacted to participate in this personnel review and chose not to respond,” Manale and Goodnow wrote to Hazelton. “Finally, we find it disturbing and highly inappropriate for you to present an official opinion regarding BFD’s application for an EMS license to the paramedic level in the letter regarding the contract between Rescue Inc. and Brattleboro.”
Manale and Goodnow said it is “unprofessional” for Hazelton to use his authority as chairman of the Vermont EMS District 13 Board to attempt to deny BFD its new license at the paramedic level “in an effort to force the town ... to sign a service contract with Rescue Inc. of which you are the executive director. It is a conflict of interest.”
Goodnow said after getting Hazelton’s letter, town staff and the fire department had time to reflect and think about the future of the department and expanding its services for residents.
“I have full faith in the fire department’s ability to provide excellent service as they already do and it’s going to look different but that’s not a bad thing,” he said in an interview. “I think that there’s real opportunity with this expansion to think about other ways we can utilize fire and EMS for Brattleboro.”
In the announcement, the town thanked “the dedicated members of Rescue Inc. for their many years of service in our town. Their excellent help and dedication to the community have been appreciated.”
“We know that they will continue to provide that high level of service to their remaining customers in our surrounding municipalities,” the announcement states. “We hope these last few months with Rescue Inc. as our primary EMS provider go smoothly, and as we move forward with a new provider and transition toward BFD Fire/EMS, that we can count on Rescue Inc. for mutual aid.”
Hazelton said he learned about the decision via email a few moments before he was contacted by the Reformer about the announcement. He described how his group had challenges with the way the fire department approaches EMS calls and wanted to make sure patients are getting the appropriate care.
Rescue charges at a per-capita rate, currently about $26 a person. Hazelton said the figure fluctuates by 1 percent or less each year.
“Town subsidies we receive from all our towns are discussed and voted on by representatives from each town,” he said. “Our Board of Trustees is made up of appointed officials from each of our communities. They set the rates and that rate helps cover the cost of readiness as well as uncompensated care for people who are uninsured or underinsured.
Hazelton said Rescue covered every single emergency call in Brattleboro for the last six years, including two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. He anticipates the impact of losing Brattleboro as a member will be significant.
“We will continue to work with remaining member towns to provide the exceptional service that people have come to expect,” he said. “We will obviously need to make sure some operational changes based on Brattleboro’s decision.”
Hazelton recounted how a few years ago, Putney explored contracting with a different EMS provider and residents ultimately wanted to keep Rescue. After having recent conversations in Putney, he said, “people were glad they did.”
The Brattleboro Fire Department has delivered “first-response pre-hospital EMS care” to Brattleboro residents since 2000, according to the announcement. The town said last year, the department responded to 1,367 EMS calls for service, more than half of the total EMS calls for the year.
Currently, the department has two paramedics, six advanced emergency medical technicians (AEMTs) and 18 emergency EMTS. Seven members are in an AEMT class that will end in July, and the department plans to hire three new members who are AEMT or paramedic certified.
To aid in the transition, the town intends to contract with Golden Cross Ambulance Services for one year. That group is anticipated to keep two ambulances at Central Fire Station downtown.
“In addition to Golden Cross licensed professionals, these ambulances will have a BFD staff member onboard for each call,” the announcement states.
During the first year, the town will look to buy two ambulances, add staffing and continue to train staff to become paramedics and AEMTs.
BFD “continually strives to provide the highest level of care that the people of Brattleboro deserve and expect,” the announcement states. “This transition will be no different; the residents and visitors will be delivered the best quality of care.”
Community forums with the fire department and Golden Cross are scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, April 18 at Central Fire Station; 1 p.m. Saturday, April 23 at Central Fire Station; and Tuesday, 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 26 at Brooks Memorial Library.
“People shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to the town manager’s office or one of their Select Board members if they have questions about how this is going to impact services, which it won’t,” Goodnow said.
Manale said in the announcement that he feels the fire department can provide a high level of service after a year of transition and it “makes financial sense.” He estimates the town will receive an additional $500,000 to $700,000 in annual revenue, which he anticipates will be proposed to be invested in quality-of-life improvements for residents.
“I think its a positive direction the town is moving in and it’s the right direction to move in,” Fire Chief Len Howard said in an interview. “There certainly will be changes. Are we going to have hiccups? Certainly ... But that’s how we learn and we’ll move on. I don’t see the level of service being any lower than what you see now. I think it will be better.”