By MADELINE HUGHES
Hinesburg’s fire department is at a crossroads, and the question is: To start an ambulance service or not?
“We used to be a fire department that did EMS, we’re not anymore. We’re an EMS department that does fire calls,” Fire Chief Al Barber told the Selectboard when he presented his budget in December. Barber reiterated that concern when he spoke to The Citizen on Monday.
Mounting Emergency Medical Service (EMS) calls in the region have put pressure on area departments, including Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue, the ambulance service currently providing hospital transportation for Hinesburg residents.
That pressure is causing the college’s rescue service to re-evaluate which towns it serves. The department wants to cut ties with the Hinesburg Fire Department, so the Hinesburg Fire Department has to find a new solution.
Hinesburg does not have its own ambulance service. Instead, volunteers operate Med 100, a truck outfitted with the same apparatus as an ambulance, but not configured to transport a patient. The community volunteers, who are part of Hinesburg First Response, respond to the calls in the community. Then, typically, Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue provides ambulance transportation to the hospital.
Barber told the Selectboard he wants to have public information sessions and distribute a survey around Town Meeting Day to solicit information about what ambulance services residents want. The town could find another department to cover ambulance calls, or it could invest in its own ambulance.
“The only way to improve service is to improve the time from the start of the call to the time a patient gets to the hospital,” Barber said. “That means putting an ambulance here.”
Currently it takes about 22 minutes for an ambulance to get to Hinesburg from Saint Michael’s College, records online show. The physical distance is approximately 13 miles, depending on the location of the call.
Even so, starting an ambulance service in Hinesburg would take years to get the equipment and the volunteers to adequately staff the department and provide service, Barber said.
“Even if you say ‘Let’s put money in (the budget) for an ambulance,’ we couldn’t do it,” Barber told the Selectboard Monday at the board’s budget meeting.
Emergency officials in other towns including Starksboro have expressed interest in working with Hinesburg in a manner similar to the town’s current relationship with Saint Michael’s, Barber said. Ambulance fees would cover a majority of the EMS budget, but not all, he added.
Ambulance services are being strained across the region, which is why other towns would potentially want to create agreements with Hinesburg, Barber said.
“Drugs, aging, and the large scope of the calls EMS responds to could tie (an ambulance) up to not respond to the next call,” Barber said. If ties are cut with Saint Michael’s, “We would be in the unique position of being at the mercy of everyone else” for ambulance service, he added.
Strains on the system
“Across the board in Chittenden County there has been a rising growth in call volume,” explained Leslie Lindquist, rescue chief for Saint Michael’s College.
The college’s ambulance service also covers its campus, Colchester’s Route 15 corridor, Winooski and St. George. However, because St. George contracts with Hinesburg for fire department services, St. Michael’s will shift ambulance service for St. George to Hinesburg as well.
“Especially with volunteer organizations, we have to have balance,” Lindquist said.
Student volunteers still must attend class during the days they are on call with rescue.
“As the grow volume grows it is harder for volunteers to want to serve,” Lindquist said.
Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue has been handling emergency calls to Hinesburg for nearly 50 years since the college began service in 1969. The department is staffed by student and alumni volunteers with at least one three-to-four-person ambulance crew always on duty. Students juggle their volunteer work around their class schedules.
In the past six months, Hinesburg has received 300 calls, Barber said. The majority of the calls have been for EMS services.
Vermont communities without their own ambulances often rely on emergency services from neighboring towns.
“Every year we look at response times, and Saint Michael’s has the quickest response times for the town,” Barber explained.
Charlotte Rescue, Shelburne Rescue and a few other neighboring departments cover Hinesburg calls when Saint Michael’s does not have an available ambulance.
Saint Michael’s is paid for its service through insurance money and does not have a contract with Hinesburg. Before the service could collect insurance money for ambulance service, Hinesburg would allocate money for services on Town Meeting Day, Barber said.
Lindquist said that Hinesburg’s planned growth over the next few years made the college’s rescue department reevaluate its relationship. The college would like to stop providing the main ambulance service for Hinesburg by June 2020, but that is negotiable, she added.
“We want to ensure the town has appropriate and adequate service,” she said. “We always want to do what’s in the best interest of the community as they look to grow and develop.”
UPDATE: This story was updated on Jan. 25 to clarify how St. Michael’s students balance their volunteer duties with classes.