Towns look at future of ambulance services

WILTON – Milford and Wilton may be looking at the possibility of using private ambulance services, but that doesn’t mean the area’s tradition of public ambulances is doomed.

Initial proposals presented last week to Milford from private ambulance services were higher than some had expected and far more than the zero-cost option that once had been discussed. A study committee may still recommend selectmen look at replacing the town-owned service, but that option appears less attractive than it once did.

Meanwhile, Wilton’s surprising decision to talk to Rockingham Ambulance, threatening the existence of the Wilton-Lyndeborough-Temple Ambulance Service, was downplayed last week.

“There is no intent of withdrawing at this point,” Wilton Selectman Daniel Donovan said at a Wednesday night meeting of the WLT board. Donovan was answering service concerns prompted by an Oct. 18 decision by the Wilton selectmen to talk with Rockingham Ambulance, a private service based in Nashua. Wilton’s departure would cripple the three-town service, since Wilton provides 60 percent of its public budget.

WLT has an annual operating budget of $198,000, of which roughly $130,000 will be covered by patient and insurance fees.

The Wilton selectmen’s decision to talk to Rockingham was prompted by concern about the effect of changes in regional dispatching services triggered by Amherst’s withdrawal from the Milford Area Communication Center. Selectmen say they want to make sure MACC continues to dispatch for all Wilton’s emergency services – fire, police and ambulance, as well as the highway department – to minimize delays and possibility of confusion.

Smaller towns often have more than one dispatching service. For example, next year, after it pulls out of MACC base because of cost and service concerns, Lyndeborough’s fire department will be dispatched by Keene Mutual Aid, its ambulance service by MACC and its police department by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department.

“I don’t expect anything is going to come of this, to be honest,” Donovan told the board. “It would be helpful to explain to the voters whether there are or are not realistic alternatives to this entity. My guess is there are not.”

In fact, Wednesday’s meeting at the Wilton-Lyndeborough-Temple Ambulance Service bay on Route 31 included the possibility that the 30-year-old organization may expand.

A paramedic and the fire chief from Greenfield, which currently gets ambulance service from Peterborough, showed up and expressed interest in joining WLT. Talks will continue on the idea.

“The fact that you have a paramedic on every truck is a big plus,” said David Hall of Greenfield.

Staffing rural, volunteer ambulance services is becoming increasingly difficult because small towns have few people working in them during the day who can answer calls. WLT Director Carylyn McEntee said such difficulties were behind her decision in July to pull back the service’s second ambulance, which had been based in Temple since that town joined in 1998.

Both ambulances are now based out of the Wilton facility. Lyndeborough and Temple have rescue squads that can provide on-site care while an ambulance is on its way.

Staffing concerns are also behind McEntee’s request that the service pay for an EMT to stay at the Wilton bay during weekdays, when on-call coverage can be difficult.

Meanwhile, the Milford Ambulance Study Committee is pondering proposals from private companies to replace Milford’s town-owned ambulance service.

Rockingham Ambulance, CarePlus Ambulance Service of Merrimack and Mountain Valley EMS of Hooksett provided information last week, but the level of detail is such that they are still being studied and the committee may not have a recommendation for the selectmen on Monday.

Milford Town Manager Katherine Chambers said differences among the proposals made straightforward comparison difficult. For example, some wanted the town the pay for a bond to cover unexpected costs, while others wanted the town to hand over its two ambulances.

In general, she said it appeared they would cost the town close to $300,000 a year, with the remainder made up from charges to patients and their insurance companies.

If true, that cost to the town would be less than the Milford Ambulance Service, which has a $655,000 budget, of which about $300,000 is covered by patient fees.

The idea of replacing the town-owned service has already drawn heated debate at public meetings and in letters-to-the-editor columns, both from people who think the town-owned service is too expensive and from those who believe a private operation would be worse.

The topic is expected to be discussed by Milford selectmen Monday night.