Don Turner: Vermont's first responders crisis

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Don Turner: Vermont's first responders crisis

Wed, 09/18/2019 - 9:45am -- tim

by Don Turner Putting aside our differences in politics, we’ve all come to count on our first responders and the services they provide as a “given.” We know that if, in that dreaded circumstance, we have to call 9-1-1 for an emergency, we’ll have a reassuring voice on the other line, ready to send help. But what if there was no answer? What if the wait time for emergency services was too long? What if there were too many other crises at that very moment, and our first responders couldn’t make it?

Unfortunately, that’s the reality we find ourselves in now. As a member of the Milton Volunteer Fire Department myself, I’ve seen it first-hand. Fire departments and EMS units across Vermont are finding themselves hit with the very same demographic crisis that has impacted our state politics and budget. We have fewer young people, which means fewer recruits for emergency services. As a result, staffing and volunteer levels are declining considerably. When staffing levels go down, response rates go up. The burden on neighboring communities’ response services increase. And associated insurance costs may spike as well. All of these impacts have a real impact on the quality of services in many regions of our state.

Earlier this year, we learned that Cabot Emergency Ambulance Service was in a dire situation. The primary cause, according to the selectboard chair, was staffing challenges due to the inability to attract and retain people to serve. One 30-year veteran of the squad put it best: “We got a bunch of people we trained. They went to other services or moved out or went to college and didn’t come back...”

And it’s not just in Cabot. The Cavendish Fire Department faced similar staffing issues, prompting merger discussions with the Proctorsville Fire Department. Just recently, St. Johnsbury officials expressed an openness to combining emergency services across the region due to the fact that “fire departments around the area are having trouble maintaining their staff numbers.” Barton had to auction off its ambulances. And financial woes faced by the Williamstown Fire Department caused them to consider charging for some fire department services, with the funds going to give volunteer firefighters a $1,000 property tax deduction.

The Legislature called for a report on this issue, which found that statewide emergency call volume has increased while, at the same time, “Eight out of ten services are currently reporting difficulty with recruitment and retention.” That’s quite literally a recipe for disaster. As a result of this and other challenges (including funding strains, the toll of the substance abuse epidemic, and credentialing challenges), 10 out of Vermont’s 13 EMS districts saw their response times increase from FY17 to FY18.

Perhaps the most astonishing line of the report was: “The mental health issues and suicide rates of EMS workers continue to increase at an alarming rate.” Think about that for a moment--our first responders are so overburdened by the current system that their own mental health has been impacted dramatically.

The League of Cities and Towns has said we’ve hit the critical stage today. And they’re right. We have to act now. What can we do to ensure the integrity of our first responder systems, and the well-being of those who are there for us in a moment’s notice?

First, these conversations about local and regional consolidations must continue. Until our demographic trends are well on their way to being reversed, we need to make more efficient and effective use of the resources we have today.

Second, we need to consider providing recruitment benefits to our first responders. As mentioned above, Williamstown is considering opening a fund to provide property tax deductions for volunteer firefighters. When I ran for Lieutenant Governor, I called for First Responder Tax Credits in municipalities across Vermont. Additionally, we can broaden some of the same state benefits we already provide. Vermont currently offers free hunting and fishing licenses to our servicemen and women, as well as our veterans. We should consider expanding this exemption to all first responders, allowing police, firefighters, EMTs, and others to take advantage of this benefit. These are all ideas worth considering.

And third, we need to have a real conversation about improving the training and licensing process for first responders. Last year, 50 percent of EMS providers reported a burden caused by the state’s credentialing requirements, and 30 percent indicated a loss in first responders as a direct result. We need to look at streamlining credentialing requirements for emergency services.

Our first responders are the true public servants. We all know that they work all hours of the day and night without question. There is no party litmus test for them to help; they’re just there, without hesitation. We have a moral obligation to give back to those who give so much to protect us every single day. Let’s start by having a real conversation about how we can give back, today.

Don Turner is a former Republican State Representative from Milton, former House Minority Leader, current Milton Town Manager and longtime member of the Milton Fire and Rescue departments. He was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.