SOUTHWEST HARBOR — On Monday afternoon, there were no emergency medical personnel on duty at the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Ambulance Service.
“If you call for an ambulance right now, nobody’s there,” said Southwest Harbor Fire Department Chief Tom Chisholm, who had been notified earlier in the day by the dispatcher on duty. “My motto is: When in doubt, call the fire department because someone’s always going to show up… When I know that there’s no ambulance coverage, I send a text out.”
There have been 135 emergency calls to the town’s fire department since the start of the 2020, according to Chisholm. Of the 20 of those that were EMS related, 15 were made on or after August 1.
“A lot of these calls are now automatic to the fire department,” said Chisholm, who currently has five licensed EMS providers on his volunteer force. “Right now, the Southwest Harbor Fire Department is governed under a license to respond to wherever the Southwest Harbor ambulance is called to… We’re sending qualified people to those calls. We’re here to help the ambulance as much as we can.”
Staffing the ambulance service in a pandemic has been tougher than the challenges of finding qualified people during non-health threatening times.
“There’s not a lot of EMS staff in the area,” said Margy Vose, president of the ambulance service’s board of directors. “This is a new problem. Our service historically has been, and remains, very good to the residents of Southwest Harbor and Tremont. It has been a little more challenging in the last few months.”
In a Board of Selectmen meeting last week, Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen voiced concern about the service’s staff shortage. Board Chairman Kristin Hutchins, who also is a driver for the ambulance service, told other members of the board that the nonprofit organization has lost three of its per diem EMTs this year.
“We’ve had some times when the ambulance service hasn’t had somebody on,” VanDongen said during the meeting. “That does stress our fire service. We need to look at what this community needs to do to provide an ambulance service for its citizens.”
VanDongen recently attended a meeting with neighboring island town managers and leaders of the emergency services where the topic of an island-wide ambulance service was broached. He told the Board of Selectmen that if the town were to take a greater role in contributing to the ambulance service’s finances than its annual donation to the nonprofit, it would be a costly change.
“I think something needs to be said to push the Southwest Harbor Tremont Ambulance Service to make a change,” he said.
Shortages in emergency personnel is not a new subject for the ambulance service here and others throughout the state of Maine. Many of the medical technicians travel from as far away as Bangor to come to Southwest Harbor to work a 12- or 24-hour shift.
While the ambulance service has a few key employees who work about 36 hours per week, according to Vose, the rest of the shifts are covered by people looking for shifts outside of a 40-hour work week.
“For the most part, people are filling in around their other jobs,” said Vose, noting that people are choosing different paths during the pandemic. “It has a significant effect on what people are going to do as their other jobs.”
“I’ve seen an ongoing shortage that’s gotten much worse probably in the last five years, where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find folks who want to make this a career,” Ed Moreshead, director of Northern Light Medical Transport in Bangor, said in an article written for the website EMS World.
Maine has 272 EMS services, the article noted. Those that are small or serve rural areas tend to struggle the most. When paramedics can choose where to go, they aren’t likely to go to the town that gets few calls and can’t afford to pay them much. Small towns also have fewer people, which means a smaller pool of potential volunteers.
“We’ve got a few different things that we’re struggling with,” said Vose, who is meeting with the head of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service within the week. That service has also been struggling with adequate staff.
“We are troubleshooting and we are trying to come up with solutions,” she added. “If it was easy, we would have come up with a solution by now.”