Waterbury Ambulance names executive director, lands federal funds

Members of Waterbury Ambulance check in people at a walk-in Covid-19 vaccination clinic in Waterbury on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This story by Lisa Scagliotti was first published in the Waterbury Roundabout on Jan. 29.

Waterbury Ambulance Service has officially named Maggie Burke as its executive director in a nod to her dedication and experience as the organization pivots from pandemic response to establishing a modern headquarters for its second half-century. 

The decision comes as the nonprofit emergency response agency closes in on its fundraising to build a new ambulance station in Waterbury Center. Promoting Burke from operations administrator to executive director will keep leadership consistent, agency leaders said, as they transition to post-pandemic operations and prepare to break ground this spring on the facility they hope to move into about a year from now. 

As these pieces were coming into place in recent weeks, the agency also learned that it will receive $700,000 in federal funding designated for the purchase of a new transfer ambulance and to put toward the facility project.

Waterbury Ambulance is an organization that many in the community and across the region came to know well during the COVID-19 pandemic. It stepped up to answer the call from the Vermont Department of Health to open testing sites and later vaccine clinics open daily in Waterbury and Berlin. State and federal funding assisted to add dozens of staff who conducted thousands of tests and administered thousands of vaccines at events, workplaces, schools, churches, even visiting scores of homes to connect with elderly and disabled Vermonters. 

The past few years have seen multiple milestones: In 2021, Waterbury Ambulance marked its 50th year of service to the community and was named Vermont’s  Ambulance Service of the Year. Last spring, former Executive Director Mark Podgwaite received a lifetime achievement award from the state saluting his work as an EMT, an EMT educator, and an EMS manager. 

Podgwaite in October died unexpectedly at age 60, a blow to his family, friends and co-workers. Soon afterward, Burke was named interim director of Waterbury Ambulance. 

Mark Podgwaite of the Waterbury Ambulance Service assembles doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic in Berlin on Saturday, October 2, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Moving up

Ambulance trustees Chair Sally Dillon said that after advertising the position, the board’s hiring committee had three applicants and interviewed two – Burke and one other – before making an offer. “Maggie has put her heart and soul into Waterbury Ambulance and the qualities it prides itself in prior to Mark's passing,” Dillon said in announcing the choice. “She has continued with that same can-do attitude while doing his job and a lot of her previous role.”

Burke called the opportunity to lead Waterbury Ambulance “humbling and amazing.” The ambulance crew recently gathered for their annual group dinner where former members joined in sharing stories of the early days in the 1970s when the service was young. Seeing generations who have been dedicated to the same mission is a source of comfort and strength, Burke said. 

Waterbury Ambulance Service former Executive Director Mark Podgwaite along with new Executive Director Maggie Burke at the Guptil Road ambulance station last spring. Podgwaite passed away in October. Photo by Lisa Scagliotti/Waterbury Roundabout

“You look around and realize that the strength of the organization is in our people,”  she said. “This is neighbors helping neighbors. But it’s stronger than any one person.”  

Dillon said she and the trustees were pleased that Burke was eager to take on the role, noting that having consistency in leadership going forward will be valuable. 

“It has certainly been a trying time for Waterbury Ambulance and EMS as a whole but together we can continue to make Waterbury Ambulance a service that we and the community can be very proud of,” Dillon said in her message to the membership. 

Burke has been with Waterbury Ambulance Service since 2015 when she started as a volunteer EMT. She later was hired on a per diem basis when she received her Advanced EMT certification. By spring 2019, she was named operations administrator.

The next step will be to review all of the duties the top two managers have in running the organization, Burke said, to decide how they will be divided between her position and a new operations director that will be advertised soon.

Dillon said she envisions Burke doing many of the tasks Podgwaite performed along with some of the work she oversaw in her number-two role such as fundraising for the ambulance service’s “Station Creation” project to build a new modern ambulance facility. 

Support grows for station project

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Waterbury Ambulance members had begun to brainstorm plans for a new station and search the community for a suitable location. Those plans were put on hold, however, when all hands were needed daily to run COVID testing and vaccine efforts. In early 2022 as pandemic duties eased, they returned to the building project. A site was secured along Route 100 in Waterbury Center on part of what was the Sayah farm just south of the Cabot Annex store and Waterbury Veterinary Hospital.

Podgwaite oversaw the development plans that call for building alongside a second new facility that will house satellite medical offices from Copley Hospital in Morrisville. Local permits have been obtained and state permitting is in progress, Burke said. 

Last spring, in announcing that the Waterbury Ambulance was moving ahead with their building plans, Burke and Podgwaite joked at how they made a good team by necessity, pointing to the compact office space they shared in the current ambulance station, literally working side-by-side at the same desk.

The building sites for the new Waterbury Ambulance Service station and Copley medical offices lie to the west of Vermont Rt. 100 on a hill. The small red-roofed building on the Bourne's Energy parcel shown in this aerial photo will be removed. Photo by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout

Built in 1983, the ambulance station used now is located beside the town highway garage on Guptil Road. The organization has long outgrown the 2,400-square-foot space with storage lining the garage walls beside the ambulances parked inside. Gear for its Waterbury Backcountry Rescue crew is stored at multiple locations including the fire department’s station on Maple Street.  

The new facility is designed at 6,500-square feet with adequate office space, training room, and quarters for on-call staff to sleep and shower. It will be built with four bays: two for fully equipped ambulances; one for the backcountry equipment; and one for a new transfer ambulance to be purchased by the end of 2024. 

The service currently has two fully equipped ambulances, one of which will be replaced by a new ambulance now on order and expected to arrive next year, Dillon said. That purchase has been anticipated for more than a year.

Having a bay to accommodate a transfer ambulance will enable Waterbury Ambulance to provide more contracted services to move patients between medical and care facilities. Dillon said that’s a vital function in demand and it often does not require a fully equipped ambulance because most transfers are not emergencies. Burke noted that the transfer vehicle would be four-wheel drive and able to respond to 911 calls with some added gear. But its main purpose would be to expand the services the agency can provide and ultimately allow Waterbury Ambulance to earn more income in the future, she said. 

Given that reimbursement from insurance and subscriptions don’t cover the full cost of routine ambulance service, finding new streams of revenue is critical. This year, for example, Waterbury Ambulance Service’s operating budget anticipates a shortfall, Dillon said. 

Purchasing and outfitting the transfer ambulance will be paid for with $225,000 in federal funding recently secured by Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The appropriation is in the $1.7 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Bill recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden. 

The ambulance service’s appropriation includes another $475,000 to be put toward the station construction project, an example of federal funding having “a meaningful impact in Vermont communities,” Sanders said.

An architect's rendering of the proposed new station for Waterbury Ambulance Service. Photo courtesy of Mark Wheeler, EHDanson & Associates/Waterbury Roundabout

“Too many Vermonters, and people across the country, have lost hope that government can work for them in real ways,” Sanders said in announcing funding headed to 51 Vermont projects. “Too many have lost hope that government is listening to what they need and taking real action on their behalf. With these projects, I am glad to say, Vermonters will soon see real, positive benefits in their daily lives and in their communities. I was proud to see these projects through the Senate and look forward to seeing them have a meaningful impact in Vermont communities as quickly as possible.”

Senate passage of the bill came in the final days that Vermont’s senior Sen. Patrick Leahy was in office. The longtime Democratic senator stepped down at the end of his term in early January to be succeeded by newly elected Sen. Peter Welch, also a Democrat. Becca Balint, D-Vt., now holds Vermont’s lone U.S. House seat, following Welch. 

The bottom line

Dillon and Burke said the federal funds come at a critical time for their project. When design and planning for the new station began several years ago, cost estimates were $2.5 to $3 million. 

Designs are now complete and costs have been fine-tuned, Burke said. In addition to construction materials sharply increasing in price, a few items have been updated such as security and IT systems in the plans. The bottom line has inched up to $3.4 million. 

Dillon said project planners anticipated the increase. One element of the remaining fundraising, Dillon added, will be to seek out in-kind donations to help with outfitting the station. Such contributions could have meaningful impacts on covering costs. 

Burke shared the funding breakdown. 

Waterbury Ambulance started off with $1.5 million of its own savings for the new station. To date, the project has raised $320,000 from a combination of individual donors, businesses and events. Another $600,000 is pledged by donors, plus the new federal funding. 

“We’re getting closer,” Burke said, reflecting on how far the campaign has come in less than a year. “It’s exciting and really needed.”

The municipalities that Waterbury Ambulance serves also have all agreed to ask voters on Town Meeting Day March 7 to approve allocating some of their towns’ federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to the new station. Those pledges total $100,000 and are calculated by the size of the communities served with Waterbury pledging $76,000, Duxbury $20,000 and Moretown $4,000. 

If voters approve those requests, the organization will have $400,000 left to raise, Burke said, adding that fundraising can continue as the project moves ahead with the goal of not having to borrow the remainder if possible. 

“It’s been a really, really hard year,” Burke said. “We’re just outrageously grateful to this community.”

The project schedule calls for obtaining the remaining permits in the coming weeks, a spring groundbreaking, and construction complete by next winter.

Caitlyn Couture of the Waterbury Ambulance Service distributes at-home Covid-19 tests in Berlin on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. Piles of empty boxes that held the kits are on the right. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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