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Tri-Town vote means fresh start ... or the end
GREENWOOD — On Saturday, Greenwood voters will be faced with a decision that could make or break Tri-Town Ambulance.
If residents cast a "yes" vote on warrant article five during Saturday's town meeting, the town will contract with Tri-Town, allowing the non-profit company to continue to operate in the black.
A "no" vote will result in the town contracting with Pace Ambulance Service instead, a move which could literally put Tri-Town out of business, says John Hammel, a representative of Tri-Town.
"There's no way to tell for sure," said Hammell. "It wouldn't be good. It impacts the numbers. We would stay open as long as we can. It also would impact other towns' decisions as what to do with us."
In recent years, Tri-Town has struggled to stay afloat. There were public squabbles among the organization's board members, after which Woodstock, one of the company's largest customers, pulled out in 2008. In June of that year, Tri-Town chief Norm St. Pierre was removed from his position.
It was a dark time for the service.
"We were rock-bottom as far as money goes," said Hammel, "because the budget was based, at the time, on the Woodstock subsidy and the call volume from Woodstock."
Almost immediately after that, the national economy tanked, helping to drive the ledgers of the beleaguered company deep into the red.
"The economy hurt us just like everybody else," said Hammel. "... instead of taking an ambulance, a lot of people were taking their own personal vehicle, because they're worried about having no insurance or expensive ambulance costs, things like that."
Hammel says that the company suffered more than it needed to, because it didn't react quickly enough.
"We didn't make the necessary adjustments to staffing and things like that as far as pay ... goes," said Hammel. "We cut pay much later in the year, and the changes were much too late to come."
While the company has gone through some rough times, Hammel has a message for the voters of Greenwood. He says that the company has turned the corner, and is not only stable enough to maintain services, but is poised to improve.
Hammel points to a series of changes that Tri-Town has made in order to adapt to new realities.
First, he says, the board has managed to overcome the conflicts that were dragging Tri-Town down and is also more in touch with the staff working on the ground.
"We've found a way ... to work together," said Hammel. "Communication is greatly improved between the actual staff and the board members."
The company has also cut the pay of some of its personnel, and reinstalled the sometimes-controversial Norm St. Pierre as the Tri-Town chief.
"Norm took back over as Chief [in early 2009]. ... That was a big help," said Hammel, who said that St. Pierre's role in the company had been a bone of contention among board members.
Tri-Town has also learned how to spend within its budget, and is now "absolutely" operating in the black, according to Hammel.
"I give a lot of credit to our accountant, Janet Fournier. She's definitely helped us out," said Hammel. "We cut a lot of costs."
Hammel says that business is improving in the service's coverage area of West Paris, Sumner, Milton Plantation, and Greenwood.
"Call volume is up and that definitely helps."
According to Hammel, the company is not carrying a debt from the rough times. All debts were paid off through revenues that come through the course of its regular operations.
In the future, said Hammel, the organization can continue to grow if Greenwood and the other towns will stay on board.
"A year from today, we'd love to continue adding on ALS [Advanced Life Support] personnel, intermediate and paramedics so that we could have round-the-clock ALS coverage for starters. We'd like to get our drivers back to their normal wages as well. We're taking baby steps right now and going from there."
Tri-Town versus Pace
A shortage of fully-trained EMTs is one aspect of Tri-Town that has drawn criticism from voters in the past.
Ambulances are equipped with EMTs who have undergone one of three different levels of training. A basic has the least amount of training, an intermediate has the next level, and an advanced paramedic, often referred to simply as a paramedic, has the most.
"They have a paramedic on every truck," said Hammel. "We are working up to that."
Among its 22 employees, Tri-Town has some advanced paramedics, but not enough to provide round-the-clock coverage in its two trucks.
In some cases, the patient would not need a paramedic, or the Tri-Town truck would have a paramedic on the truck. If a needed paramedic is not on the Tri-Town truck, the two agencies cooperate.
"We drive towards each other and the Pace person jumps right on with us and we continue right on to the hospital," said Hammel. "We've got all the equipment already, and all we need is that license level sometimes. That training level."
It may seem odd for two competitors to work together, but in a medical profession, the care of the patient takes precedence.
"We leave the business side of it to the business people. When it comes down to working a call, it's all about the patient. The patient deserves the best care."
Hammel says that company officers are "working on getting paramedics for ourselves as well, because that is the standard of care that we want to offer people."
Tri-Town has recently added two new paramedics, Gavin Smith and Jason Littlehale.
Hammel says that the average response time for Tri-Town in Greenwood this year is 14 minutes, which is twice its overall response time of seven minutes to the coverage area as a whole.
Hammel says that a significant portion of the difference is due to calls to the Mt. Abram ski resort, which produces a lot of calls and is located further away than most town addresses.
Excluding Mt. Abram calls reduces the response time in Greenwood to 12 minutes.
Hammel says that the time of day and the origin of the call have a lot to do with how quickly help can arrive.
"It used to be pretty cut and dried because we were the only ones in West Paris," said Hammel. "Pace puts a truck up in Woodstock part of the time. ... We have people there 24-7. We have people always at the station ready to go now."
Tri-Town responded to 47 calls in Greenwood in 2011, and has seen 26 calls so far this year, which puts it on pace to handle as many as 70 calls for the year.
Hammel says that having Tri-Town helps residents, because "seconds count ... and minutes matter. We get you to the next level of care faster than anybody else can."
Hammel is hoping for the residents of Greenwood to come out and vote.
"It would be such a shame for this to go down right now," he said. "Everything is just going so well. It would be so horrible for us to have to shut down."
On Saturday at 10 a.m., residents will make their decision about which ambulance service to use.
While Greenwood voted to maintain its contract with Tri-Town last year, a proposition to assume partial ownership of the agency failed by a narrow margin, 32-30.
Hammel says that the move would have helped the agency to save on insurance costs. He believes that most citizens would support the company, but that they have to come out and vote.
He says that Woodstock, which switched to Pace three years ago, still has residents who are freshly disappointed in the decision.
"We still get people to this day who had no clue about the switch in service. They have no idea that Tri-Town Rescue is not their ambulance anymore. I think that's unfortunate because some people are upset about it."
Geff Inman, the fire chief in Woodstock, says that he doesn't know anything about the change that Tri-Town has undergone, but that town leaders are satisfied with Pace.
"We're very happy with Pace," he said.
The town meeting begins at 10 a.m. in the Legion Hall in Greenwood.