BAR HARBOR — What would happen if you called 9-1-1 for a medical emergency and no one was available to come help?
Sean Hall of Bar Harbor has that question on his mind a lot. There’s a shortage of local people on emergency forces, he said, and two area emergency services have closed in the last decade. Hall has been a Maine EMS Instructor Coordinator for the last 25 years and is employed as a full-time nurse in Blue Hill.
“There may not always be somebody to show up for emergency response,” said Hall during a training session last week. “Everywhere in the nation, departments are having problems getting people.”
Since October, Hall has been one of the instructors for an emergency medical technician licensing class organized by the Mount Desert Island High School adult education program. Also instructing the course is Jim Wilmerding of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service and Jon Zumwalt of Bar Harbor Fire EMS. The curriculum for the course comes from United Ambulance Training Center in Lewiston, an accredited Maine State EMS training center.
“There’s a finite number of paramedics on the island at any one time,” Wilmerding told the Islander. “We only have seven physical ambulances on the island. In the summer, they’re going all the time.”
The medical transport and emergency care divisions of Northern Light Health, which owns hospitals in Ellsworth and Bangor, are understaffed, according to a recent CNBC report.
“Volunteers are held to the same professional standard that I was as a hired (EMT),” said Hall who has worked as an emergency responder in several departments. “In the first 15 to 20 minutes there’s no difference. [Patients] are going to get the same treatment as in the ER.”
Students in the class he is teaching with Wilmerding are required to log 150 hours of classroom time training, as well as 24 hours of clinical time. This means hours spent on an ambulance or in an emergency medical environment. Each participant pays $1,000 for the course, which may be reimbursed by their local department, but typically is not.
“It’s a commitment,” said Wilmerding. “It’s a big deal. We tell folks to anticipate three to four hours of studying in addition to class time.”
This Sunday, the 13 students who have spent at least one day a week, as well as some weekend hours, with Hall and Wilmerding in the community room at Machias Savings Bank in Bar Harbor, will travel to Lewiston to take their practical test. Shelby Allen, who is a member of the Mount Desert Fire Department, is set to make the trip.
“If I was going to be on the fire department, I wanted to be able to do more,” said Allen, who graduated from College of the Atlantic in 2016. “I mostly went through the EMT training because I thought it would be a good opportunity because it came to Bar Harbor.”
Allen is also currently attending the Hancock County Fire Academy, which is a six-month intensive course.
“I joined the fire department because I read an ad in the Islander [about] needing volunteers,” said Allen. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into… What I studied in college doesn’t have much relation to what I’m doing now.”
Allen cites the need for emergency personnel both locally and nationally as a big reason she chose to add the skills to her tool belt on her “own dime and time.”
“We are rural,” said Hall. “We are suffering from shortages of staff and personnel. You’re asking somebody to make a life-changing decision in one second or less.”
Not only is there serious time and finances committed to the training, responding to emergencies has its own risks. More and more people are on multiple medications, there are widespread addiction issues and the state’s population is old and getting older. Being able to respond with confidence and knowledge is essential to the job.
“The population that’s on Medicare and Medicaid is dramatically increasing,” said Wilmerding. “That’s a challenge to the services.”
If the participants in the class with Hall and Wilmerding are any indication of people looking to join local emergency forces, there is a glimmer of hope for the future.
“They’re harder on themselves than we are,” said Hall about the people going through the training. “This group has really dug their heals in… It’s just a huge, huge commitment but people don’t understand that.”
Both Wilmerding and Hall, who have logged at least six decades between them in emergency medical services, express concern about looming emergency personnel retirements in the next decade.
“It’s the graying of the service,” said Wilmerding. “It is very difficult to attract young folks.”
Mount Desert Island is home to three ambulance services: Bar Harbor Fire EMS, Northeast Harbor Ambulance and the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Ambulance. All have paid staff working full-time, but the smaller services often have only one person to respond to calls.
“A lot of people who are taking shifts are not from MDI,” said Wilmerding, explaining they come from Bangor and Ellsworth to work shifts for the local ambulances. “We try to be competitive in terms of pay scale in order to attract (people)… We’re fortunate to have three services for the population.”
When a person on the Northeast Harbor Ambulance responds to an emergency, they often have to page a trained volunteer from the community to join them on the call. If no one is available, all of the ambulance services have mutual aid agreements so they can support one another when necessary.
According to Wilmerding, the NEH Ambulance does not currently have any drivers on staff, which means a second person is essential if a patient needs to be transported. Often, it is difficult for volunteers to leave their jobs during the day to provide the support needed at an emergency call.
“Most calls are a minimum of an hour and a half or two hours,” said Wilmerding.
Being part of a small community also has its challenges, he said. “Nine times out of 10 you know who you’re going to see. That puts a whole different level of stress and strain on the job.”