MANCHESTER — The Northshire Rescue Squad has responded to criticism leveled by consultants for the town of Manchester, defending its level of service and culture, and taking issue with the way concerns about its performance were made public.
The reaction comes a week after the consultants, Municipal Resources Inc. of Meredith, N.H., presented findings of a Manchester-centric look at the rescue squad. The consultants recommended the town consider forming its own ambulance service — which the town would equip with about $500,000 in federal COVID relief dollars — and potentially partner with a medical entity, which it did not identify.
The Select Board on Tuesday voted to halt its negotiations with the rescue squad on a new three-year agreement, which is now 18 months overdue. But board members also made clear that a town ambulance service, were it to come to that, would not leave the other member towns without service.
The Manchester-based nonprofit provides service to Dorset, Danby, Mount Tabor and part of Winhall.
Mike Casey, the chief operations officer for the rescue squad, said Tuesday he was in the dark about complaints until he heard about the consultant’s report. Casey did not attend the meeting, as he was on an ambulance call at the time, he said.
“I haven’t heard anything about any problems until they showed this presentation,” Casey said. “ As far as I know everything was going fine. I still believe everything is going fine. Everything I can track shows me it’s doing fine.”
But what constitutes “fine” is where the disagreement arises.
The consultants cited a “lack of urgency” in response to calls, saying response times are slower than the standard set by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services. According to Town Manager John O’Keefe, calls are getting to their destinations in 12 to 14 minutes; the CAAS standard is about 9 minutes.
Casey and former Northshire Rescue Squad president Ben Weiss, who now serves as an advisor to the nonprofit, said the squad does not roll through Manchester with lights and sirens except for critical response calls, in the interest of safety. They also noted that the consultants left out a vital detail — that patients are very happy with the level of service the rescue squad provides to its member towns.
O’Keefe said there’s no reason it should take four minutes for the rescue squad — which typically has two ambulance crews on duty during the day and one at night — to get out the door.
O’Keefe said that assessment came from consultants’ one-on-one meetings with fire, police and dispatch personnel, although he was not present. “The common theme was a lack of jumping in the saddle,” he said.
While Weiss and Casey said the rescue squad enjoys positive relationships with Manchester police and volunteer firefighters, O’Keefe said there hasn’t been the level of integration between the rescue squad and the town’s public safety agencies, citing a “lack of willingness to do interdepartmental training.”
“We put all three of those in the same building for a reason,” O’Keefe said. “There doesn’t seem to be the level of coordination we’d really expect.”
Weiss and the rescue squad have also taken issue with the way complaints about the service were aired, before they had an opportunity to see the findings for themselves. (The consultant’s report is about a month from completion, according to O’Keefe.)
“Has the rescue squad been perfect? I am sure we have not been. Sure, there are times we haven’t potentially responded absolutely as quickly as we can. But I honestly question the motivation of things,” Weiss said. “Even if there were a few incidents we could have improved service on and they haven’t complained about it and go to a meeting and say the rescue squad is screwing up and we ought to replace them — I don’t understand the motivation behind that.”
The consultants met with Casey, as well as with Rescue Squad Board of Trustees President Susan Howard and Treasurer Jim Salsgiver.
Casey and Weiss are further troubled that the consultants came to conclusions about the rescue squad’s culture without meeting with its emergency medical technicians.
Another disagreement on culture focuses on the rescue squad’s insistence that Manchester is one of five communities it serves, while town officials, noting they’re half of the service area population and nearly 70 percent of the rescue squad’s calls, believe they’re owed more consideration, especially when it comes to planning events, and more attention to Manchester’s growing share of the rescue squad’s operational budget.
“We give everyone we serve the same type of response, the same type of care,” Casey said. “We do not differentiate because there are more calls in one town than the other. When the call comes out, that is the most important emergency call.”
O’Keefe defended the Manchester-centic approach, saying the town has an “overwhelming greatest interest in making sure that EMS in the region ... is the very best we can afford with limited resources.”
Yet, Casey, Weiss and O’Keefe all agreed that the two sides can still come together and work out their differences.
“Yes. But the terms and conditions would have to change though,” O”Keefe said, pointing back to the level of service the town is getting for its share of calls and costs. “We have to take a real long look at what that relationship is and what kind of safeguards we have.”
“Any marriage can be saved if both sides are willing to put the work in,” Casey said. “Once we substantiate the problems are there. This is the first we’ve heard any problems.