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Rural Ambulance Services Struggle To Survive

VPR/Susan Keese

The Whitingham Ambulance Service will soon close its doors, after forty years serving the rural towns near the state’s southern border.

Emergency responders say changing economic and social patterns threaten the survival of many small ambulance services.

In the 1980s the Whitingham Ambulance Service had thirty-four volunteers. They handled medical emergencies in Halifax, Whitingham and Readsboro.

But in recent years the number of volunteers has shrunk to eight. In 2011 Readsboro left the group for an ambulance service in Massachusetts.

Now Halifax and Whitingham are turning to another service, Deerfield Valley Rescue. It’s based in Wilmington, several miles north of the village of Jacksonville, where the Whitingham service is headquartered. 

Whitingham Ambulance Service president Christina Moore says the service will close on Wednesday.

“It’s a very sad and bittersweet thing,” she says. “But eight people really isn’t sufficient to sustain an ambulance service around the clock.”

Moore says new training requirements are among the reasons for the decline in volunteers.

“There used to be a day when as few as forty to sixty hours could be sufficient for initial training for somebody to work on an ambulance,” Moore recalls.

Now every ambulance must have two licensed people, including an emergency medical technician with about two hundred hours training.

The Whitingham service has operated on a conditional license since January because of trouble meeting staffing requirements.

The service has explored possible funding sources to hire paid staff. But Moore says money and volunteers are in short supply.

“Windham County is now one of the poorest counties in New England,” she notes. “Many of our people are traveling greater distances for work.  It used to be that there were factories and businesses in the area, that when there was a call two or three people could leave work for a couple of hours and then return. And the jobs have now moved. They’re just not there.”

Officials in Halifax and Whitingham have been finalizing contracts with Deerfield Valley Rescue, which currently serves seven towns.

Edee Edwards chairs the Halifax select board.

“What we chose to do,” Edwards explains, “Was to look at a more regional approach by getting involved with a different ambulance service that covers other sections of the area.”

The two towns have asked Deerfield Valley to keep an ambulance in Whitingham, to avoid longer response times.

Under the new arrangement, emergency medical response volunteers from Halifax or Whitingham will often arrive first and begin to stabilize patients while a licensed ambulance is on its way.

Chris Bell heads the Vermont Health Department’s emergency medical services office. He says the local first response model is widely used around the country.

“The key is to get the first trained EMS person to the patient’s side who can start assessing and providing care,” Bell says.

Paramedic Bill Hathaway, who is active in the Vermont Ambulance Association, expects emergency medical care to become more regionalized. He notes that most ambulance groups survive by billing insurers. Hathaway says that funding model puts small services at a disadvantage.

“The cost of doing business as an ambulance service is extremely expensive,” he says. “And of course the more transports you do the more revenue you bring in. But a lot of these little services that do fifty, sixty, a hundred calls a year, the money’s just not there.”

Hathaway says money has recently been set aside to provide free internet training and regional classes that should make it easier to meet continuing education requirements.

But for the Whitingham Ambulance Service, it’s already too late.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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