The history, future of ambulance service in Hinesburg as St. Michael’s moves on

Courtesy photo
This is Saint Michael’s Rescue’s first official manufactured ambulance.

Staff Writer

After almost 50 years, Saint Michael’s Rescue is withdrawing from providing free ambulance service to Hinesburg.

A committee was formed at the behest of the Hinesburg Selectboard to consider what the town should do to provide ambulance coverage. That committee is on hiatus now after requesting and getting approval to hire a professional consultant to help the members study options and come up with a recommendation.

As the town wrestles with the issue of what is next for ambulance service for Hinesburg, it seems like an appropriate time to look at how it is that Saint Michael’s College, with a campus that is almost 15 miles and 20 minutes away, came to be the ambulance provider for Hinesburg.

The genesis of Saint Michael’s Rescue

In April 1969, Saint Michael’s College freshman Mike Thomas collapsed during a lacrosse practice. He died of a heart attack shortly after being transported to the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington.

It took 40 minutes for ambulance service to get to Thomas and his death led to calls for an ambulance service at the college, said Leslie Lindquist, Saint Michael’s Rescue chief for the last six years.

Saint Michael’s began ambulance service in 1969 and added fire service in 1970.

Courtesy photo
Don Sutton, who started Saint Michael’s Rescue, photographed after receiving an alumni award a few years ago.

Central to the effort was Donald “Pappy” Sutton, said Lindquist. Sutton arrived at Saint Michael’s in the late 1960s as the director of food services. In the early 1970s when Saint Michael’s began admitting women, he became dean of students and in 1978-79 director of security.

Until his retirement in 1993, Sutton was the chief of the department. Sutton also mentioned that he is an honorary member of the Hinesburg department.

In the early years, Sutton said, he and the students who helped form Saint Michael’s Rescue “had to beg, borrow and steal – everything.”

Their first two ambulances were a used red Cadillac station-wagon model and a used 1961 GMC van, he said.

At that time, Hinesburg Fire Chief Al Barber said, the area was basically rural and ambulance services were few and far between.

Shortly after its founding, Saint Michael’s Rescue was supplying ambulance service to Winooski, Williston, St. George, eastern Colchester, Hinesburg “and a huge swath of Interstate 89,” said Lindquist.

On-the-job emergency training

Lindquist came to the school from Boxford, Mass. Like many other Saint Michael’s students, she chose the college because she knew about its fire and rescue service. The outreach to other communities has provided on-the-job training for several generations of fire and rescue personnel.

“I was hooked after I first got to know the organization. I wanted to be an EMT (emergency medical technician),” Lindquist said.

People who were at Hinesburg’s July Fourth celebration this summer may think that all of the Saint Michael’s Rescue members are female because an all-female contingent marched in the parade. Lindquist said that they do have men on the squad, but the ratio of women is greater than men – on the rescue squad.

She said in general, the rescue unit tends to interest more females and the fire unit gets more males. They average about 30 rescue squad members with generally more than twice as many women than men, while the fire squad averages more than three times as many men to women members.

In the early 1970s, shortly after the Saint Michael’s Rescue Squad formed and began ambulance service to Hinesburg, Iroquois First Response formed. This was an organization of first responders from Hinesburg and St. George created to get to the scene of a medical emergency and begin time-critical emergency medical procedures to stabilize a patient and get them ready for transport when the ambulance arrived from Saint Michael’s.

Hinesburg Fire Chief Al Barber said that his father was one of those who worked to form Iroquois First Response. He thinks an accident near his home when he was 8-years-old was the catalyst that helped jump start the organization.

“It was a bad accident,” said Barber. “The fire department was called, but they couldn’t do anything until Saint Michael’s got there.”

Over the years, membership in Iroquois First Response dwindled. When it got down to two members, they decided they would become part of the Hinesburg Fire Department.

The high standards that the Iroquois First Response set have continued since the merger with the fire department. They received the award for First Responder Agency of the Year for Vermont in July, an award they also received in 2013.

Call volume balloons

So why has Saint Michael’s Rescue decided to concentrate its service closer to the college?

“In order to be mindful of the student experience, we need to focus on the communities that are the closest to us,” Lindquist said. “The current service is working, but we felt it was the right time.”

Like many other area communities and hospitals, the volume of emergency calls has gotten huge.

Hinesburg’s ambulance service committee has met three times but isn’t meeting during the consultant search.

Aaron Kimball and Merrily Lovell are the selectboard representatives to the ambulance committee. Kimball said that he thinks that the consultant will be hired shortly and that the committee will be back to meeting “sooner than later, but I don’t have a date.”

Saint Michael’s Rescue’s agreement to provide ambulance service to Hinesburg ends June 30, 2020, so, Kimball said, it’s important that the decision about what’s next is made soon “because with every day, July 1 gets closer.”

“We’re finding that there are two puzzles to tease out,” Kimball said. “One is that we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing July 1 next year. Maybe Saint Mike’s is part of that solution.”

Kimball and Barber both speculated that if Hinesburg has settled on what it’s going to do to provide ambulance service and is clearly moving in that direction, that Saint Michael’s Rescue might be persuaded to extend its deadline a short while.

Chief Barber said that he doesn’t think that ambulance service can be set up that soon, mostly because of applications and permits that will be needed and the time that takes.

Kimball said that another consideration is: “Where we’re going to be a year from now or five or 10 years?”

Hinesburg Selectboard member Merrily Lovell said she has been surprised by how many qualified people are involved with the committee, but the issue is “much more complicated than we’d thought.”

Lovell said one of the complications is: Will a new building need to be built and if so, where? “Will they need housing?”

Barber said that the ambulance service could go into Hinesburg’s current fire department building. And he said that he thinks that the revenue generated from ambulance billing would be enough to pay two full-time employees to work both fire and emergency medical services. According to Barber, this would cost less than finding another nearby established ambulance service to cover Hinesburg.

Kimball said the committee is questioning what level of service Hinesburg wants. Another issue is: If the town decides that it will start its own ambulance service and the goal is for it to pay for itself, how big of an area would they need to serve?

If they find that they need to expand the coverage area by providing ambulance service to other towns, what happens if the ambulance is gone to a call away from Hinesburg and there is a call in Hinesburg, Kimball asked.

If Hinesburg decides to get into the business of providing ambulance service to other areas and finds that they’ve always got to be making calls to pay for the ambulance service, could Hinesburg find itself in the same situation that Saint Michael’s Rescue and other towns are in – too much call volume?

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