Andover Board, residents complain about Chester emergency service, cost Negotiations, creating a fire department among strategies

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A discussion of the amounts charged by the Town of Chester for fire protection and ambulance service took up a large portion of the Monday, Sept. 13 Andover Select Board meeting with one board member saying he had been shopping the service around but no other town is interested in or able to provide the service.

Currently, Andover pays Chester $24,000 annually for fire coverage, $6,000 for ambulance service and $3,000 for emergency services dispatching. Chester’s operating budget for fire service is $259,258 while ambulance runs on $184,535 and dispatching services provided by Hartford dispatch costs $22,039. Capital budget (equipment) and maintenance expenses are not included in those figures. The overall percentage of Chester’s fire and ambulance services paid by Andover is 7.08 percent.

Former Select Board member Jean Peters, left, talks about a friend’s experience with calling the Chester Ambulance Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Former select board member Jean Peters kicked off the discussion during the public comment portion of the meeting saying that a friend had called for an ambulance recently and rather than getting the Chester ambulance they were told that the privately owned Golden Cross would be responding.

Peters said the original response time was supposed to be 40 minutes, but it ended up being more than an hour. Also, her friend asked the ambulance to be taken to the hospital in Rutland, where her doctors are, but was told that the ambulance could only take her to Springfield, where she was not satisfied with the care.

“In light of Chester wanting us to pay this large amount of money, has it been decided that you can’t specify where you want to go? You can’t specify that you want to go where your doctors are?” Peters asked.

Board member Jed LaPrise spoke of similar situation in which a patient that was supposed to go to Dartmouth Hitchcock was taken to Springfield.

Board member Jed LaPrise said he knew of a similar experience where the ambulance was asked to take someone to Dartmouth but it instead went to Springfield without explanation.

Peters said that if the person had known it would take over an hour for a response, someone would have driven her to Rutland Regional Medical Center.

“In my opinion this needs to be addressed,” said Peters. “It’s outrageous …. I do wonder if Chester residents get priority over Andover residents if calls are coming in. What happened? Was everybody busy at 7:30 in the morning?”

“Most of these people are volunteers and I don’t think someone said ‘I don’t want to go to Andover today,'” said board member Chris Walker.

Chester also has just one ambulance and calls go to other services when it is out on a call. It was not clear whether closer services were also busy when the Andover call came in.

Board member Scott Kendall said he had made calls to the fire and rescue departments of local towns to see if they would cover Andover.

Board member Scott Kendall said he had contacted other departments to cover Andover but ‘it ain’t happening.’

“It ain’t happening,” said Kendall. “They don’t want to cover us. Either they can’t or they were told not to or they just don’t have an ambulance.” Kendall contended that the problem was political and that various towns don’t like each other.

“It’s all who’s friends with who,” said Kendall.

“That has to be called out,” said Peters. “This is life and death.”

The board later returned to the cost fire and ambulance from Chester. Peters and LaPrise noted that Chester had recently built a public safety building and that Andover had no say in the design or the siting of the building. She also said that Andover residents have no ability to vote on what Chester spends on its fire department.

Peters recalled that the town could have taken the armory building on Route 11 for free, which would have made fire service closer to Andover.

The discussion turned to objections to the handout prepared by Chester Town Manager Julie Hance to illustrate several methods for calculating Andover’s portion of the cost of the service.  Andover board member Maddy Bodin noted that Hance and several Chester Select Board members commented that  there had to be a simpler way to calculate Andover’s portion that would be fair to both towns.

Board member Maddy Bodin felt the Chester board was willing to negotiate.

Noting that Fire Chief Matt Wilson’s position, set out in a memo, was that Chester is selling a service to Andover and if that town doesn’t like the price they can look for services elsewhere. Bodin said that Hance and Chester Select Board chair Arne Jonynas “didn’t sound that harsh, they seemed willing to negotiate and still trying to figure this out.”

“Without Andover’s contribution to them they’d be in a pickle,” said Peters. “So it’s not one-sided.”

Road foreman Charlie Golden said that his crew has sanded a lot of private driveways in Andover to help Chester’s fire engines to get to calls.

“While they are figuring their way, you have a really good opportunity,” said Peters, “and I would have a contract as opposed to an MOU going forward. It’s much more ironclad and have it reviewed by an attorney for pitfalls.”

Bodin said in her research, several towns smaller than Andover have their own fire departments. “Plymouth has its own fire department, Weston has its own fire department and Windham has its own fire department, which is surprising because they’re smaller than Andover.” Bodin quoted the annual cost of those services at around $30,000 each.

“So we can have a fire department for $30,000 a year,” said LaPrise noting the town could buy an old fire engine and make the town crew the firefighters. “Then all we do is call for mutual aid and ‘boom,’ we’re done. You call mutual aid and Chester has to come in to help, that’s how it works.”

Board members discussed strategy for approaching a negotiation with Chester at a future meeting.

“We have to know what our options are,” said Walker, “and it sounds like they’re slim.”

“I was trying to get Windham to take half the town and Ludlow to take the other half,” said Kendall. “But they wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t even throw out any kind of number.”

The board decided that at least one member should be at the Chester Select Board meeting on Sept. 15 while the Andover board works on its negotiating strategy at its next meeting on Sept 27.

No report from attorney

‘We have a bill,’ said Town Clerk Jeanette Haight in response to the absence of the short-term report.

The board was set to discuss a report on its options for regulating short-term rentals promised by attorney Jim Carroll when he appeared via zoom at its Aug. 23 meeting. Carroll had told the board that there was authority in the law to regulate, but suggested that it avoid an outright ban since that could draw a legal challenge. He also told the board that he would be sending a report outlining what he found in his legal research.

Board chairman Chris Plumb said he had not received the report yet.

“We have a bill,”  Town Clerk Jeanette Haight said, noting that the research and Carroll’s appearance before the board came in at $1,800.

Several members felt the bill should not be paid until the promised report is delivered.

Other business

The board discussed the rapid deterioration of the “high bridge” west of Horseshoe Acres on the Andover Weston Road, which had been scheduled to be rebuilt in 2024.

“It’s really scary,” said road foreman Charlie Golden, who told the board that it would be helpful to have them make a plea to the state of Vermont to move the bridge up on its construction schedule. Board members discussed the weight limits and the heavy truck traffic that the bridge gets.

But on Tuesday morning, Haight was informed by VTrans Structures Project Manager Carolyn Cota that the project will be moved up to the summer of 2022 and would be advertised at the end of this year.

In other action, the board decided to buy two solar powered radar speed signs for the Andover Weston road for a cost of no more than $7,500.

The board is also continuing to look for someone to act as the town’s health officer.

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  1. darcy gibney says:

    Living in Windham in the ’70s, my father, grandfather and a bunch of our neighbors started the Windham Fire Department, which some of you mentioned in your comments.

    He had been a fire-fighter in Syracuse, N.Y. He and others were (and are) dedicated volunteers. He was also a very dedicated EMT on the Londonderry Rescue Squad. I grew up with the ultimate respect for his abilities and the sacrifices he made to the community when he was on-call. He left family activities and his bed in the middle of the night whenever that beeper went off. Taking an hour to respond? Unheard of. If that is happening now, it needs to be addressed. Do we have data on response times? That seems more relevant to any discussion than anecdotes.

    Finally, my father never got paid for going on all the calls, or any of the training he attended, or the hours spent training others or members of the community in CPR. This is the case with most of our crews. It has been reported that ambulance crews are struggling to find members all over VT. Starting ambulance and fire crews in a town require huge levels of commitment and I would be surprised if we have enough townspeople willing to do so effectively. I am now a resident of Andover, and wish it to be known that I, as a taxpayer, am in no way whatsoever unhappy with the reported cost of ambulance or fire services, or the service they provide.

    I am amazed that the cost is so low, actually. Furthermore, good people work in the emergency room of Springfield Hospital, and I am super grateful that in our rural area we have such a service so convenient and close. We are very fortunate.

  2. Lee Herrington says:

    Julie has some great points and I’m glad she weighed in here. I would suggest Andover residents look at making emergency services less of a commodity you are buying and, instead, an area where you are a partner in the area’s safety.

    Andover is so sparsely populated (10% the population of Chester yet half its size) it seems the task of being your own first responders without outside support is an unreasonable goal. There are lots of options to make Andover safer besides what was reportedly brought up in the meeting.

    For example you could purchase an ambulance and/or fire rig that would be staged in your town. When an emergency call comes in Chester volunteers would not always need to roll to Chester to pick up equipment. They could come straight to Andover and perhaps an Andover-based volunteer could be responsible for picking up equipment.

    Maybe the town could sponsor residents to attend EMR certification or provide tuition reimbursement to encourage more first responders who live in town and to cut response times down.

  3. Willy Williams says:

    So I grew up in Andover. This is crazy you guys are complaining about giving Chester 33k a year for fire and ambulance service.

    If you think it’s too much money, then build a fire station, go pick up a used fire truck and ambulance and figure it out. Oh ya, and you can’t just “make” the town road crew firefighters. That’s a whole separate job. I guess Maddy Bodin will be the first to volunteer to be the chief.

    If you’re worried about paying for it, why not put a local tax on the properties of every single non-primary residence to pay for it. Andover has more than enough multi-million dollar second homes to cover it. Or a local sales and service tax and make all business, doing business in town limits get a business license and charge a 3% tax on all sales and services, they would collect the tax and pay it into the town once a month.

    I own a business in SC and I have to pay 9.8% tax on ANY business sales or service. I just pass that onto my customers. So if Joe Cool gets his lawn mowed for $100, he would be charged $103 and $3 would go to the town.

    It’s quite simple, I pay online by the 20th of each month. If i don’t pay I get my business license pulled and if I keep running my business after the license is pulled i go to jail. It’s that simple. Good luck Scott and Charlie.

  4. MJ Miles says:

    In an emergency, an ambulance service is obligated to take someone to the nearest emergency room for care. It’s a safety time issue. Strokes have a 90 minute window from onset of symptoms to receive certain life-saving treatments. The same holds true for heart attacks.

    911 is for emergencies and that means getting you to the closest ER. I work in an emergency room. I get you want to go where you prefer, but if where you gonna farther away that’s the chance you take.

    Emergency services don’t have that priviledge and given the legalities if someone missed a life saving treatment option due to a delay of care then you can certainly know they would be sued. Tthat’s the reality of health-care today.

    Emergencies are life-threatening. That’s what ERs look for. If you are looking for full workups on non-life threatening issues that require a lot of testing, you are likely to be referred to follow up with your primary care provider. It is the nature of health-care, not my personal opinion. Just the way it is.

  5. Julie Hance, Chester Town Manager says:

    I do not ever respond to articles about the town. However, this one really can’t go without comment. It sounds like a meeting of both full boards should be convened. Based on this article, it would appear that there are facts missing from the conversations. I would highly recommend that a call be made to the State Fire Academy to ask questions about how mutual aid works, what hospitals ambulances are allowed to travel to, costs of running a service, training required for officers, differences between full time, part time and volunteer services, etc. These are all items covered by Vermont law and are not at the discretion of any individual Fire Department. Again, I would welcome all Andover Board members, former board members and residents to attend a joint meeting so that informed discussion can take place.

  6. Raymond says:

    Taxation without representation is tyranny. Years ago, an elderly friend in Andover was having a heart attack. Knowing the slow response time he had me drive him to the hospital rather than wait over an hour for an EMS from Chester. The local emergency response organizations have cross loyalty and will not offer services now provided by someone else. Andover needs its own Fire Department.