MANCHESTER — A consulting firm hired by the town is recommending that Manchester part ways with the Northshire Rescue Squad and start its own EMS team, either by itself or with a partner.
At Tuesday's Select Board meeting, the consultants, from Municipal Resources Inc., of Meredith, N.H., cited a lack of urgency on Northshire Rescue Squad response times, a lack of communication between the rescue squad and the town, and a lack of involvement in event planning and coordinating the area response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consultants Brian Duggan and Christopher Norris cited interviews with area elected and appointed officials, public safety officials, dispatch records and the rescue squad's president and treasurer, Susan Howard and Jim Salsgiver, respectively.
The presentation, made public Tuesday, looked at the Northshire Rescue Squad solely from a Manchester perspective. As such, it focused on the rescue squad's cost to the town — $190,000, which is partially defrayed by rent and fees paid by the rescue squad for space in the public safety complex, dispatch services and utilities.
The presentation raised concerns about the culture within the rescue squad — the lack of urgency in response to calls, and a mindset that sees Manchester solely as one of five communities the rescue squad serves, despite being half of its service population.
Consultants also pointed to billing costs incurred by the rescue squad and lost opportunities to provide non-emergency medical services as shortcomings.
Whether the town would push forward on its own ambulance service — using $500,000 of the town’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for startup costs — remains to be seen.
But the board voted unanimously Tuesday to pause negotiations on a new three-year agreement with the Northshire Rescue Squad while it considers its options. The initial three-year agreement expired in 2020, and though Manchester has yet to sign a proposed agreement that would begin in fiscal 2023, it has paid its obligation through the rest of the fiscal year.
Board Chairman Ivan C. Beattie, in a prepared statement delivered before the presentation, said he felt the town needed to have such plans readied, “given the severity of the criticism, of the operational deficiencies indicated by the consultant.”
“I believe that everything should be on the table. Including the potential of not extending our agreement with Northshire Rescue in its current form,” Beattie said.
After Tuesday's meeting, Beattie said he personally is leaning toward forming a town ambulance squad, although the consultants said teaming up with a private partner is possible.
"What I don't want to see happen is that we partner with someone and that situation goes south," Beattie said. "There very well may be a resolution to this that falls within the existing structure, and I'm open to that conversation. But I want to make it very clear, I'm learning towards some sort or municipal or private [solution]."
In a prepared statement, the Northshire Rescue Squad said it was “disappointed in the flawed process selected by the Manchester officials to bring their concerns to our attention. Raising unsubstantiated claims in public creates disinformation that does not result in a constructive environment for results.”
In comments to the board Tuesday night and in an interview with the Journal, Salsgiver said he wished the town had shared its complaints about service earlier. He said he takes concerns about service seriously, and hopes that the two sides can work together to repair the relationship.
"If they're getting complaints but not telling us, how's that fair? I don't get it," Salsgiver said. He said he and Howard were surprised to hear those complaints in a two-hour meeting with the consultants.
"I think we can get together with Manchester," he said. "I think we can provide services to all the people in the area, and I think we're the best vehicle for it."
Then again, "If Manchester's viewpoint is it's going to do its own thing and pull out, and start a rescue squad, and what can [Northshire Rescue] do to help, it's going to be more difficult than being open to the idea of what can we do to make everybody happy," Salsgiver said.
In its statement, the rescue squad said it is proud of its employees and ready to move forward with representatives of the towns it serves — Danby, Dorset, Manchester, Mount Tabor and part of Winhall — to address issues raised in the report.
A working session of the board representing all five towns will be called, and Salsgiver said that meeting could be held as soon as Friday.
Howard, attending Tuesday’s meeting via Zoom, told the Select Board that the rescue squad wanted to see the full report for itself.
“We don’t want to be combative, but we’d like a chance to respond and have input,” Howard said, adding that it would be forced to respond in public “because of wide scale of negativity of the report.”
Town officials and Salsgiver both acknowledged the current management structure — formed in 2016, in response to earlier concerns about the rescue squad's financial viability and allowing it a means of communicating with its member towns — had somehow fallen short on communication.
"I think we view ourselves as trying to be a team player. Somehow that hasn't come through," Salsgiver said. "We'll take criticism. We're not going to get defensive. We're going to take criticism and try to do something about it."