MOUNT DESERT — Fewer than a dozen people who are neither town officials nor associated with the Northeast Harbor Ambulance service attended Tuesday’s virtual forum on the idea of spending up to $357,500 for engineering and design work for the proposed expansion of the fire station in Northeast Harbor to accommodate fire and EMS personnel and equipment.
Citizens will be asked to authorize that expenditure at the annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 4.
Most of those who attended the forum, held via Zoom, didn’t comment or ask questions. Mount Desert resident John Adams was the only one who expressed skepticism about the wisdom of the proposed expansion. He asked why the town couldn’t, instead, rent a house or condominium near the fire station as living quarters for fire and EMS personnel.
“That scenario isn’t done in the fire service,” said Fire Chief Mike Bender. “You want to have your responders as close as you can to your equipment because you want to cut down not only minutes but seconds in responding. Housing your duty crew outside the fire station can make it a little bit more difficult to respond in a timely manner.”
Bender and EMS officials have said that, ideally, there would be living quarters at the fire station in Somesville, as well as in Northeast Harbor. But there wasn’t time to include funding for engineering work for that renovation on this year’s Town Meeting warrant. However, if the Northeast Harbor proposal passes at this Town Meeting, voters may be asked to weigh in on the Somesville project at a special town meeting later this year or at next year’s annual Town Meeting.
Adams said he agreed that, with more and more emergency calls coming from the western side of town, beefing up the fire and EMS presence in Somesville makes sense. But he questioned the decision to go ahead and pursue the Northeast Harbor project by itself.
“I think looking down the road five or 10 years, the growth of the town is going to be (on the western side) because Northeast Harbor doesn’t have any land.” Adams said. “This town tends to jump into things and then when we get down the road we look back and say, ‘I wish we hadn’t done that.’ And I don’t want us to be in that situation with this because we’re talking about an enormous amount of money.”
With the ambulance service to be absorbed into the fire department by 2023, Adams said, “I think this needs a whole rethink, a real good study. I don’t want to waste more than $300,000 on something we may not do.”
Bender responded, saying “I don’t think we have the luxury of time. I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to happen, but in a few years, you’re going to have a staffing issue in the fire department and EMS.
‘If the voters want to wait or don’t want to do this [Northeast Harbor] project, that’s fine with me. I’m giving you my best solution to continue your fire and EMS service for the town.”
Selectman Geoff Wood said he had not been easily convinced.
“I, too, worry about…the financial situation and the [affordable] housing situation,” he said. “But I am now in support of moving forward and at least seeing what it will cost and trying to make it work.”
Basil Mahaney, service chief of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service, said the service already has moved to 24/7 staffing.
“But we’re having to do it in kind of a hodgepodge fashion; we’ve got people scattered all over to do it,” he said. “Mike’s plan would allow these folks to be at the station and have a faster response time. I think this is a good option for the town.”
Town Manager Durlin Lunt agreed.
“I think we have a sound plan,” he said. “Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But I think the consequences of delaying are certainly more fearsome than the consequences of pushing forward.”