The rural emergency unit is facing a double whammy of declining volunteers, only nine for 140 calls last year, and increasing training and regulatory requirements to maintain state certification. This has left WASI and the communities it serves, Halifax and Whitingham, with some tough choices. The service would like to increase the number of paid staff, and then make sure they meet state requirements for certification. That is the minimum needed to keep the ambulance service afloat.
To do so, WASI is asking voters and officials in Whitingham and Halifax to approve funding requests at Town Meeting next month. In essence voters must decide to tax themselves to keep their ambulance service afloat.
In Whitingham, voters will choose up or down on money for WASI. Halifax is a little more circular, as voters will approve a sum on money for emergency services, and then town leaders will decide whether to continue on with WASI or go with another service.
WASI has already been jilted once, when the town of Readsboro switched to a North Adams, MA, emergency service provider. Should either Whitingham or Halifax pull out, there just won’t be enough legs left on the stool to keep WASI upright.
Regardless of the outcome of those votes, the plight of WASI may be analogous for many volunteer or volunteer-dependent organizations, especially those who provide emergency services. Changes in demographics and regulations threaten many of these groups.
In rural areas, such as here in the Deerfield Valley, populations are flat or declining. That makes it harder to find volunteers. Even when volunteers step forward, it can be difficult to find time for adequate training. It’s not enough for a volunteer to sign up, ride along, and learn the ropes from a veteran who might be on the vehicle as well. Formal training and certification are required by law and insurance carriers. Many who are willing to volunteer are unable or unwilling to commit the time and money required to gain the certification.
Vermont and the country have long traditions of volunteer service in fire and rescue. As the WASI situation demonstrates, those traditions are changing. It will be increasingly difficult for rural ambulance and fire departments to find willing volunteers. Those changes will bring stress either on the volunteers who provide those services, or the taxpayers of the town who use the services.
We often take for granted the things which most deserve our gratitude. There is no question that local rescue services deserve much gratitude. Will folks in Whitingham and Halifax feel that way about WASI?