Lifesavers

by Holly Hungerford

Essex Rescue is an anomaly: a nonprofit 911 medical emergency and rescue operation serving five communities, but not part of any municipality

Craig Butkus of Essex RescueIn 2003, Craig Butkus left his job as head of the Vermont office of a national company to follow his lifelong dream of being a professional fireman. After two years as a Maine fire chief, he was tapped by Essex Rescue to bring his dream home.

As a boy growing up in Williston, Craig Butkus dreamed of becoming a fireman. He has the pictures to prove it. As with most young boys, that career aspiration gave way to others, and it wasn’t until he was a college graduate driving to work that a responding ladder truck brought it all back to him. “I thought, ‘Wow! It would be kind of cool to do that,’” Butkus recalls with a grin that’s never far away.

Butkus had moved to Essex after graduating from Vermont Technical College in 1990. Following his moment of inspiration, he decided to volunteer with the Essex Center Fire Department. 

At the time, he was employed by Vermont Mechanical, having studied the management side of the construction industry at Vermont Tech. Butkus credits the owners of the company, Randy Kimball and the late Richard Boutin, with much of his management style. 

From them, he says, he learned how to deal with people, manage problems and find solutions, and take care of the financial and business side of an organization.  “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says.

It was during this time — 1993 — that he met Lisa Poulin through a friend of hers. Circumstances didn’t allow them time to talk at that first meeting, but Butkus remembers telling a friend, “There’s just something about her. I don’t know what it is.” 

He spent the next week looking for her throughout Chittenden County, in all the places a young 20-something would spend time. The search failed. Having given up, he was in a restaurant later that day, when in Poulin walked. 

“Very shortly after that, I knew, Yup, this was the one I was going to marry, and my mother knew it, too,” he says with a chuckle. Butkus and Poulin were married in 1994 at St. Pius X Church in Essex.

As he advanced in the company, his volunteer career in the fire department advanced in tandem: When he was a project manager at Vermont Mechanical, he was a lieutenant on the fire department; when he became division manager at work, he was elected assistant chief in the fire department; and when he became vice president in charge of the Vermont office under Encompass Mechanical, the national company that bought out Vermont Mechanical, he became chief of the Essex Fire Department. 

By then, he and Lisa had a young family, and between work and the 30 hours a week spent on fire department duties, he was missing his children’s growing-up years. It was at this point that he realized he needed to make a change. “My heart started getting pulled towards the emergency services,” he recalls. 

Jackie Goss and Heidi SargentJackie Goss (left), medical adviser/captain, and Heidi Sargent, an EMT intermediate, explore one of two new ambulances Essex Rescue has added. One is for regular runs and one is stationed in Underhill to cut response times to outlying areas.

On a whim, he decided to send out a few applications for jobs in the public safety sector, although he figured it was unlikely that someone who hadn’t formally studied fire science would be considered. “I’ll just throw out a couple of applications, just for the heck of it,” he remembers thinking. 

To his surprise, he had multiple responses — from places as diverse as Texas, Alaska, and Maine. It appeared that his combination of management and fire department experience proved valuable. 

In 2003, he and Lisa made the decision to take a pay cut so he could do what he had always wanted to do. They moved to Maine, where he took a job as fire chief in Standish, overseeing all aspects of public safety except the police department. Butkus worked there for two years, until Essex Rescue came courting, and in November 2005 he returned to Vermont.

In the three years since, Butkus has watched the organization grow in a number of areas. Membership is up. With seven levels of membership, says Butkus, people can volunteer in a way that fits their lives, whether that’s a 12-hour shift each week or occasional help around the building. 

Other changes include the move into a 1,600-square-foot addition to the building, put up with the help of the building technology students at the Essex Technical Center and a lot of donations from area contractors. A second ambulance was added for regular runs, and a third was stationed at the Underhill Fire Station to cut response times to outlying areas. A community advisory board made up of representatives from each town served is in the works. 

Butkus says he is proud of how open the squad has been to change and growth. “This place is the people,” Butkus says. “They make us who we are.” 

Greg Wolf, president of the board, 11-year volunteer with the squad, and Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School science teacher, says much the same of Butkus, whom he’s known for 10 or 11 years. 

“He’s very dynamic, extremely positive, with great energy and enthusiasm. He influences the people around him to want to do their best. He was exactly what the squad needed when he was hired.”

Essex Rescue has a long history. In the mid 1960s, funeral homes provided transport for the sick and injured in their hearses, but a growing awareness of public safety concerns led to the formation of rescue squads in the late ’60s and early ’70s. 

At this time, a group of area residents, many of whom were members of the Smugglers’ Notch and Bolton Valley ski patrols, decided to create a rescue squad to serve Essex, Essex Junction, Westford, Underhill, and Jericho. 

Jackie Goss and Robert WalkerA full kitchen is one of the amenities in Essex Rescue’s quarters, built with the help of vocational students at Essex Technical Center and area contractors. Jackie Goss chats with Robert Walker, a volunteer.

With certification in first aid following a 10-hour course taught by the American Red Cross, Essex Rescue went into service on Oct. 1, 1971. Today, Essex Rescue has 64 volunteers — an all-time high — and four paid staff. 

They respond to 1,600 calls a year throughout the 160-square-mile service area, and are on contract to respond to national disasters, including hurricanes such as Rita, Gustav, and Ike (from which they recently returned), earthquakes, and other disasters throughout the United States. 

Essex Rescue is a private, not-for-profit 501(c)3 and not part of any municipality. Funding comes from a number of sources. The operating budget, which is just under $500,000, is supported by payment from transport. 

When a patient is taken to the hospital, the patient’s insurance company is billed for the service. Whatever the insurance company doesn’t pay, the patient is responsible for. The cost of transport ranges from $350 to $600, depending on the level of life support needed by the patient. 

In addition to funding from insurance companies, Essex Rescue offers an annual subscription. “We have 1,500 subscribers and that number is growing,” Butkus says. For $45 any household in the service area can become a subscriber. This entitles everyone in that household to be transported without having to pay the amount not covered by insurance. 

Originally, these subscriptions were not honored by other squads, but today Fairfax honors them, and St. Michael’s College and Essex Rescue honor each others. “We’re trying to build out, to support the communities we all serve,” Butkus says. 

The squad also receives small annual donations from each town in the service area plus individual donations, often made as memorials to loved ones. Special projects are funded by grants, many under the Federal Fire Act, with some from Homeland Security. The capital plan has a budget of $50,000.

Covering such a large service area has its challenges. “We’re based 24/7 in Essex Junction, on the edge of the high school property. Getting to Essex, not so hard; getting to the far side of Underhill, that’s a challenge. Response times increase as you get to the more remote communities,” says Butkus. To address this concern, Essex Rescue stationed its third ambulance at the Underhill Fire Station about a year ago. Butkus’ goal is to have that ambulance staffed 24/7 just like the ones at the Essex Rescue facility in Essex Junction. 

In the meantime, the outer areas rely on so-called outposters, first responders who respond to a call directly from their homes. Each one is outfitted with the necessary rescue equipment and can secure a scene before the ambulance arrives, saving valuable time. In addition to first responders, Essex Rescue and Fairfax Rescue recently split coverage of Westford, with each squad responsible for the area it can more easily reach.

“Essex Rescue is much more than just a place that responds to your 911 call,” Butkus stresses. The squad has an active community outreach team and offers first aid and CPR classes to area residents, helps Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts earn their badges, and works with local schools in the area of injury prevention. 

One of the most successful programs is the Mock Crash, created by Colleen Nesto, a full-time captain/administrator, and staged alternately at Mount Mansfield Union and Essex high schools each year. Students experience the scene of a crash and how it might feel to lose a classmate to drunk or reckless driving. Between the Mock Crash and the Your Body in a Wreck program for driver education students, Essex Rescue is reaching out to the area’s youngest and most vulnerable drivers.

One might wonder whether Butkus has time in his day for a life outside of rescue. His answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Family is the center of his life, says this father of two girls ages 10 and 8, and a boy, 8 months. Both girls play on traveling hockey teams, and Butkus plays on a Division 1 hockey team several nights a week. The family enjoys attending hockey events, tournaments, and games together. “That’s our vacations,” he jokes. 

True to form, Butkus rounds out his time away from the office by being a volunteer firefighter and engineer on the Essex Junction Fire Department. •