MOUNT DESERT — One month ago, at 11 a.m. on May 9, the private nonprofit Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service ended 84 years of service to the community when it turned over EMS responsibilities to the Mount Desert Fire Department.
It was not a lack of financial support from the town and its residents that caused the ambulance service to cease operations; it was the growing shortage of volunteers.
“The lack of personnel was really our downfall,” said Douglass “Scamp” Gray, longtime president of the ambulance service board of directors.
“The last several years we’ve relied on a very small number of people to do so much. The volunteers we’ve had are great. There were just not enough of them to make it work.”
When Gray was growing up, his father was superintendent of the Northeast Harbor Water Company, and he drove an ambulance for the all-volunteer Northeast Harbor Fire Company. The fire company had bought its first ambulance, a Packard, for $4,000 in 1938.
“Starting when I was 14 or 15, my father said to me more than once, ‘Come on, I need your help,’ and I would go with him and help load someone and take them to the hospital,” Gray said.
“On one trip in the winter, we went to Hall Quarry and picked up a man who had fallen on the ice and broken his leg, and we took him to the Ellsworth hospital. That gave me a nice ride in the ambulance. It was kind of exciting, and I think that’s when I got bitten by the ambulance bug.”
Town Manager Durlin Lunt who, like Gray, is a Northeast Harbor native, said of a teenage boy going out with his father on ambulance calls, “The regulations were much looser in those days, so it gave kids like Scamp an opportunity to see what public service looked like. And that’s how they recruited that generation.”
In 1971, when Gray was 20 and newly married, he joined the fire company as an ambulance attendant. He then served as president of the fire company until he stepped down to become the volunteer fire chief, a position he held for six years.
In 2001, firefighting became a municipal function when the town created a fire department. The Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service was formed as a private entity to take on EMS responsibilities. Gray is the only board president the ambulance service has had in its 21-year history.
The building on Main Street that is now the Great Harbor Maritime Museum was the town’s municipal building and fire station until 1981.
Lunt recalled that in the early 1960s – and probably for some years before and after that – when a call would come in, “The first thing the dispatchers would do was look out on the street and see if one of the ambulance attendants was right there that they could grab. Someone might be walking up the street to get the mail, and then suddenly they would be off on an ambulance call. It was very informal in those days, but it worked.
“And it had a tremendous volunteer base, people who were willing to give up their time and be available at a moment’s notice,” Lunt said.
“They did so much for the community, and they didn’t do it to be praised; they did it because they thought it was important and it would help to strengthen the community.”
Lunt said the fire company’ ambulance drivers didn’t only transport sick and injured people to the hospital. Seasonal residents who lived most of the year in New York or Philadelphia, for example, would pay to have an ambulance come and bring them to Northeast Harbor in the summer and then take them back in the fall.
“There were a number of those folks, and that was probably the only way they could have gotten up here,” Lunt said.
Five or six years ago, a couple of members of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service Board told Lunt the time was coming when they would no longer be able to maintain the service. Then in February 2021, Gray and Service Chief Basil Mahaney sent a letter to Lunt in which they proposed that the town take over EMS responsibilities by Jan. 1, 2023.
That decision was based on several factors, Mahaney wrote in this year’s Mount Desert Town Report: “These factors include a lack of affordable housing, a declining year-round population to draw our membership from, along with a national decrease in the spirit to volunteer.”
Mahaney told the Islander, “To me, the ambulance service has always been very representative of the community in general. I feel that most of the people who have lived here, especially in Northeast Harbor, have been involved with it in one way or another – as an ambulance driver or EMT or board member or helping out with fundraisers. But we don’t have as many people living here year-round as we used to.
“It’s kind of sad to see it go, but I think the town will do a good job with it.”
Lunt said he knows the decision to disband the ambulance service was a very difficult one.
“They wouldn’t have done it unless they absolutely had to. There was such a proprietary ethic within that ambulance service. So, if they could have figured a way that they could protect the community adequately and maintain a private nonprofit status, they would have.
“But they realized that their number one responsibility was to say, ‘When the call comes in, the ambulance rolls,’” Lunt said. “I applaud them for seeing that for the benefit of their community the time had come for a change.”