EMS: Get Ready for Sticker Shock

At the Tuesday July 22, 2014 Selectmen’s meeting Fire Chief Dave Baker, who is also Mason’s First Responder department head, reported to the selectmen to “get ready for sticker shock in the ambulance line item for next year”. This has happened once before, but in order to put the issue into context, perhaps some history should be reviewed.

The current Mason ambulance service resulted as a consequence of disagreements over management of, and eventually a few missed calls by, the prior service. Best we can recall, the straw that broke the camel’s back appeared to be a requirement for a full crew of volunteers to show up at the ambulance bay before anything was allowed to happen. Since Mason was in the relative hinterbrush this led to slow response times for the patients and reduced enthusiasm of the local volunteers who never “made” the calls. They got to sit in the bay and wait for something else to happen. These issues were significant enough to cause a dwindling in the supply of local volunteers.

At the time, there was also friction among the Mascenic towns about funding formulas for numerous entities. The last thing the selectmen needed was another long drawn out hot spot. Funding formula’s are frequently based on egalitarian concepts like net town valuation, estimated population counts, and sometimes even call ratios that indicate actual use. We don’t recall who came up with the idea, but the Mason selectmen took hat in hand for a visit to the Brookline selectmen. After much local resistance to change and gnashing of teeth, the current form of Mason’s ambulance service was born.

Our first impression was that the number of local volunteers suddenly shot up. The basis of the new service was that the local crew would evaluate and prepare the patient; if needed and sometimes simultaneously, Brookline would respond and transport with a minimal crew. The set up seemed a bit Rube Goldbergish, but one of early comments we got (paraphrasing a resident who’s child was prone to anaphylactic reactions from bee stings): “I went inside to call for an ambulance and by the time I got back outside someone was steaming up the driveway”. So ok, we exaggerate, but the selectmen sighed a breath of collective relief when they figured they’d bumbled into the right thing.

The real credit however should go to Wes Wittier, the Brookline Ambulance director and to our local volunteers. Wes announced his retirement this year; our first thought was that “this can’t bode well”. Many of the ambulance personnel also work in town for the highway and/or the school departments; so balancing who pays for their time, the EMS line item, the other department or no pay at all, gets to be a delicate issue. Maintaining some flexibility usually drops the total cost; however, it may impact one department more than another. Lately we’ve also been getting inklings of the Mason Selectmen management style in this regard. Other unverified sources indicated to us that this was an issue about a Mason volunteer responding to Brookline calls. Oh the horror! Some people just call this mutual aide; but in fairness, there is a practical limit.

So in between the lines, we’ve heard rumors about changes in Mason’s personnel policy that addresses the who pays issue. The personnel policy is not on the town web site, so we have no direct knowledge of that. Nor can we address whether a recent change has been made to the policy. That would probably have happened in non-public session under labor negotiations. We, the unworthy, are probably not entitled to such delicate information.

However, the bottom line is that costs may be going up because the number of calls in Mason is rising disproportionally to Brookline. Or they may be going up because that’s what they naturally do and medical costs in particular do it even faster. Or they may be going up because the people now in charge have lost the big view and historical context. Calls to Mason are broken out in the Brookliner if anyone is looking for a project. Local calls are also listed in Mason’s annual report. It might be interesting to chart and compare several years before letting the elephants loose in the china shop.

When we were younger, our parents would sacrifice old broken mechanical watches to satisfy our curiosity and we could learn by “fixing” them. Like an old watch, the ambulance service is a delicate instrument and we do hope that the current selectmen on both sides will anticipate the consequences of messing with a few of its screws. Or as Chief Baker indicated: “get ready for sticker shock”.

Leave a Reply