PALERMO — Liberty Fire Chief and Volunteer Ambulance Service Administrator Bill Gillespie said Feb. 11 firefighters and emergency medical service providers are a dying breed. 

In 1988 there were 12,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, he said, while last year there were fewer than 4,000. The trend is similar for EMS providers and is exacerbated by the vaccine mandate of last fall. “We lost a significant amount of members because they just refused to get the vaccine,” Gillespie said.

In the wake of significant delays for ambulance service due to staffing shortages at Palermo’s current provider, Delta Ambulance, Gillespie, along with Palermo Fire Chief Roger Komandt, gave a presentation last Friday at the community library, in an effort to bring Liberty Volunteer Ambulance Service coverage to town.

The benefits of having a partnership with Liberty Volunteer Ambulance Service are shorter wait times and the ability of Palermo first responders to begin operating in the field at their current licensing level. 

“Both Roger and his wife, Cherie, are paramedics,” Gillespie said. “If there is a call, and Palermo first responders are dispatched, they can only work at the basic EMT level. Their paramedic license does not transfer over with Delta coming.”

If this partnership goes through, “where they both work for Liberty, the second they arrive on scene, they are practicing on a paramedic level….” This, along with a move to train and equip more of Palermo’s first responders, providing them with automated external defibrillators and a jump bag with everything needed to get started immediately at a scene, would strengthen  the department, Gillespie said.

As far as wait times are concerned, Gillespie said, from the farthest point in Palermo during the day, an ambulance can be there within 16 minutes. “Anything on the Route 3 corridor has a person rolling out the door within minutes,” he said. “During the nighttime, we will have (Palermo) first responders on scene, hopefully, very quickly, with the ambulance coming soon after.” 

Liberty Ambulance currently services the towns of Liberty and Montville, and if Palermo decides to move forward with the partnership, which will be decided at this year’s annual town meeting, costs will be split three ways, with each of the three towns paying $68,000. Gillespie said all three towns have had similar numbers of calls in the past, with Liberty having 92, Montville having just under 80 and Palermo having 87. “We have to all split it and share in the cost,” he said.

Gillespie noted that if Palermo did not join with Liberty and Montville, the cost for the two towns would be $80,000 each. The funding, he said, is “purely to pay for payroll” and does not pay for equipment. “The money pays for a per diem staff, which is guaranteeing someone is coming out the door, every single day, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” he said.

In the past four years, Gillespie said, the ambulance service’s operating costs have gone up from $54,000 in 2018 to $75,000 last year. “We had to increase, because in order for us to recruit and retain people, you have to have competitive wages.” Currently a basic EMT at Liberty Ambulance earns $16.25 an hour.

“We are finding the majority of calls seem to be during the hours of daily operation,” he said. People will put off calling until the next morning. “They don’t want to bother the nice firemen and EMTs at 2 in the morning,” he said. “That is what we are here for.”

While he is not in the business of recruiting towns to join the ambulance service, Gillespie said the initiative with Palermo came out of discussions he has had over the past year with Komandt, who also works for Liberty Ambulance, recognizing there were delays in response times to Palermo of  as much as 30 to 45 minutes.

“We are not out there soliciting,” he said. “We saw a situation that was not comfortable for any of us responding to, and said is it something we can help with? Whether we’ve been partners in this or not, we’ve easily invested $4,000 to make sure your first responder program is strengthened with new members and equipment.”

Komandt, a former Ohio resident, said he is relatively new in town, having been a resident for 2 1/2 years. “Where I came from, this would be totally unacceptable,” he said. “Our response time there was anywhere between four and seven minutes … and that is with people (at the station) all the time.

“That is why we got back our first responder license,” he said. “With Liberty, that is just going to enhance that even more, where you will have one of the strongest EMS programs in the area.”

The Liberty Ambulance station is currently staffed by two providers, with up to a paramedic level, Gillespie said, Monday through Friday. On Saturday, there is only one provider. Nighttime coverage is done by volunteers. “We would like to increase weekends to two (providers), if you folks decide to participate,” he said. 

Every ambulance just needs one provider, EMT, intermediate EMT or paramedic, and a driver, who can be a firefighter from either agency, he said. Currently there are four paramedics and two intermediate EMTs on the roster, Gillespie said.

Komandt talked about a recent call where Delta Ambulance was called. He received the call while he and his wife were at the grocery store in China. “I managed to get the last two items, go through checkout, get out to the truck, put our groceries in the vehicle, drive all the way to Palermo where the run was, work the patient for 5 or 10 minutes on scene, then we loaded him in the ambulance, driving down the road and met Delta,” he said. “That is how long they were taking to get there.”

Gillespie said, “Delta, because of the shortage (of staff), and it’s only getting worse, is struggling to recruit like everybody else is. The number of ambulances that they are running consistently is reduced.”

Announcing he had just driven back from North Carolina, where he had purchased a second ambulance, Gillespie said he hopes  the new, used emergency vehicle will be put into service in the next three weeks. “We didn’t buy anything brand new, so I don’t want people thinking Liberty’s got all kinds of money, because we don’t. We found a good deal and with the other ambulance, which is 13 years old, we are going to be able to sustain two ambulances for hopefully an indefinite period of time.”

Gillespie said he did not anticipate doing medical transports from one hospital to another. “It’s not in our peripheral vision,” he said, though he noted there are discussions about it, because that is where there is money to be made. He said providing transports would be like rolling the dice — and he did not like to gamble. “I don’t even like to be out of town when another call comes in,” he said. “I can’t help it, but I feel guilty.”

All residents who commented at the meeting spoke favorably about the possible partnership with Liberty. One resident on Zoom credited Delta Ambulance with saving her life when she had a heart attack, but added there was a significant delay “because there aren’t enough people, not enough time.” She said another challenge is engaging young folks to want to join in the service to others and to take care of their communities, but that is a whole different topic for another night. Another person said, if you figure the town of Palermo has around 1,500 residents, “it works out to less than $50 per person.” Another person said $68,000 seemed like a bargain to them.

Another Zoom attendee said in 2005 they waited for Delta for 47 minutes while her uncle died in the garage parking lot. First responders came, but there was nothing they could do, because they were not qualified. “It’s a matter of life and death, and minutes do count,” she said.