MOUNT DESERT — The community’s emergency services are facing their own emergency.
Fire Chief Mike Bender is looking to fill five new firefighter/EMT positions in the next few months because the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service is experiencing an increasingly serious shortage of EMTs.
The fire department has been planning to take over the ambulance service’s responsibilities by the end of 2022. But the Select Board voted Monday night to authorize Bender to begin the recruitment process immediately.
“This is primarily due to the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service alerting us that there is a real possibility that they may not have the staffing to provide EMS response and transport services to the town beginning in the spring, especially 24/7,” Bender said in a memo to the board.
There is no money in the fire department’s current budget to cover five additional positions. So, the Ambulance Service has offered to pay for the salaries and benefits for those positions through June 30, which is the end of the fiscal year.
Bender will include the cost of those new positions in his budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The municipal budget for next year, including the fire department budget, will be voted on at the May 3 town meeting.
“The advertisement for the new positions is for firefighter/EMT,” Bender said. “We might get somebody who is firefighter certified, so they have to get their EMT license or vice versa.
“Right now, we are looking at having three come on board around April 18 and the remaining two around May 2.”
For much of its existence, starting in 1938, the ambulance service was staffed entirely with volunteers, all of whom lived in Mount Desert. In recent years, the service has had to hire some part-time and per diem staff, some of whom live off-island. But Basil Mahaney, the service chief for the ambulance service, said even that has become increasingly difficult.
“We had been projecting for some time that we were going to start struggling with the personnel that we had, and unfortunately, the pandemic and the vaccine mandate were really the final nails in our coffin,” Mahaney told the Select Board.
“We see that we’re not going to have the staff available to get through the summer. With the statewide EMT staffing shortage, the outlook is just not real good. And we didn’t want to put the town in the situation where we tried to get through the summer, when the town really needs us to be at our best, and then not be able to do it.
“So, we thought it was important to try to get out ahead of it and work with the town to try to get the staff on board to be ready to handle the summer influx of calls.”
Select Board member Matt Hart said, “This is a problem nobody ever wants to have to deal with. But we should be thankful that we have an [independent] ambulance service and a town fire department that are working together and meshing everything together. Because a lot of times, especially in small communities, this is where you have arguments.”