MOUNT DESERT — Fire Chief Mike Bender has gone to Plan B after receiving pushback from the Select Board two weeks ago on his plan for firefighter and EMT staffing when the fire department takes over EMS responsibilities from the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service later this year.
He had originally proposed having three firefighter/EMTs working each shift at both the Northeast Harbor and Somesville fire stations, with three shift platoons rotating every three days. He said that is called a 53/56-hour shift.
“Firefighter/EMTs would work an average of 53 regular hours and three overtime hours per week,” Bender said in a memo to Town Manger Durlin Lunt. “To accomplish this, present full-time firefighters would need to have their hourly wages adjusted to align with their present annual salary.”
He explained that the four fulltime firefighters who are currently on staff would be working more hours for the same pay.
“Does that seem fair to anybody?” on-call firefighter and Assistant Chief Tom Wallace asked the Select Board. “This is wrong, and it’s going to put a bad taste in our hiring system.”
Board Chair John Macauley said, “I don’t think we should be expecting these folks to work and not be compensated for their time.”
In light of that, Bender this week proposed an alternate staffing plan called the 42-hour schedule, which he told Lunt “is quickly becoming one of the most popular with firefighters and EMTs. This is primarily due to having a four-platoon rotation versus the three platoons used with the 53/56-hour rotation.”
Bender said that to keep the yearly pay for current full-time firefighters the same, he would need to switch to the 42-hour schedule. He said that would require hiring a total of eight new firefighter/EMTs.
He is already recruiting to fill five of those positions. He told the Select Board on Jan. 3 that he might not need to hire three more for which he was budgeting. But with the proposed switch to a four-platoon staffing model, he said the additional hires will be necessary.
However, he said, trying to hire eight additional firefighter/EMTs instead of five seems “unrealistic in today’s labor market.”
“If we cannot fill all the new positions, then I plan to try and fill open shifts with per diem staff. If per diem is not available, then the full-time staff will need to cover those shifts by working overtime. This concerns me somewhat because working just one or two extra shifts can quickly turn a regular 42-hour work week into a 50- or 70-hour workweek. Overtime cost will increase as well.”
Bender said in his memo to Lunt that he also was concerned that with the four-platoon staffing model, only three firefighter/EMTs will be on duty at each fire station at any one time. He called that “a little dicey,” especially during the busy summer months.
“When an ambulance goes on a run, a minimum of two firefighter/EMTs go with it and are gone for an average of one to three hours,” he said. “(This) leaves one person at the station to respond to other calls – not an ideal situation, but I feel it is manageable at least for the short term.”
But Select Board members said at their meeting on Tuesday that Bender had made a strong case for having four firefighter/EMTS on each shift at both stations, and they increased his budget for per diem personnel from $62,000 to $248,000.
That raises the total fire/EMT budget to $1.99 million, which is nearly $1.29 million more than the fire department budget for the current year. But board members pointed out that, in taking over EMS responsibilities from the private Mount Desert Ambulance Service, the town is essentially creating a new department. And it was noted that the ambulance service will be giving its ambulances and other equipment to the town, so taxpayers will be spared the expense of buying those assets.
Still, board members expressed concern that some voters at town meeting in May will experience sticker shock when they see the fire/EMS budget.
“I just want everyone in this room to promise to be willing to stand up at town meeting and say they support it,” board member Matt Hart said.
Board member Martha Dudman agreed, saying, “That’s what’s going to make it pass, because there are going to be people who arrive (at town meeting) still not knowing that the ambulance service was ever not a town department.”