Emergency services are expensive. For many towns, the move to an all-paid fire department or ambulance service is something that has long been discussed but is deemed to be cost prohibitive in many cases. But, at what cost do they make sense, and how is that determined?
Fire department and ambulance service members will tell you about the challenges of both paid and volunteer recruitment. The dwindling number of volunteers is something the departments have been talking about for decades, but it has reached a tipping point in recent years.
What if you called for an ambulance and no one came? In 2020, the Islander reported a day in Southwest Harbor where the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Ambulance Service had no one on duty. Shortages of emergency personnel are not a new subject for the ambulance service here nor for others throughout the state. Many medical technicians travel from as far away as Bangor to come to Southwest Harbor to work a 12- or 24-hour shift. That is not a sustainable business model.
That November day in 2020 when no one showed up for a shift at the ambulance service spurred the town to reignite talks of establishing island-wide services. But those talks went nowhere. On the surface, island-wide services make sense, but the thought of losing control of a town’s emergency services is something that often stops the conversation.
Likewise, in Northeast Harbor, citing difficulty in attracting and retaining staff, the privately held ambulance service, which has served the town since 1938, is in the process of transferring its assets and liabilities to the town. The ambulance service, which answers roughly 300 calls annually, will dissolve and become a department of the town, merging with the fire department and shifting oversight responsibility to the town. To provide adequate service, the town is looking to hire a number of firefighter/EMTs to its staff, which will push the department’s budget up roughly 175 percent, or an increase of about $1.2 million.
In Ellsworth, the county commissioners briefly discussed a regional ambulance service last November, but the plan was abandoned as soon as the ink dried on the commission’s meeting minutes.
Emergency services are something that people don’t tend to think about until they need them. And when that time comes, people want the services to be there, without interruption.
There is a bill currently working its way through the Legislature that aims to help emergency service providers by, among other things, setting up a fund for communities to engage in strategic planning and explore alternative models for providing emergency care. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives and heads to the Senate for consideration.
We urge the state to keep emergency services front and center and continue to find ways to help them survive.
While communities may soon have the option to plan strategically, legislators should also look to address another issue that has long plagued these services simultaneously: increased reimbursement rates. This would go a long way to help the bottom line and ultimately fee up money to increase worker pay. Paying people for risking their lives is the least we can do.