Looking back: Camden’s emergency medical service rooted in 1936 ambulance acquisition

Citizens were generous in supporting Camden First Aid
Tue, 05/14/2024 - 10:45pm

    Camden voters will consider at the June Town Meeting polls whether to further expand EMS capacity of their fire department. This entails hiring three full-time firefighters who are trained as EMTs, a move, if approved, that expands the fire department’s staff from four to seven full-time employees. The Select Board debated the expenditure at its April 16 meeting to finalize the proposed budget, and ultimately voted 3 to 2 to send the matter along to voters.

    Voters will not, however, be asked to purchase an ambulance for the town, as was originally proposed in March.

    For more than five years, Camden has been talking about restoring emergency medical services to the purview of its fire department. In 2019, area fire chiefs and town managers publicly discussed the idea of building a regional ambulance service run by municipalities. 

    That proposal failed to gather steam; however, both Camden and Rockport have since separately pursued adding EMS service to their fire departments. Both efforts will appear before their respective voters in the 2024-2025 municipal budgets (Camden here and Rockport here) on June 11. The two towns are joining 173 other fire departments across Maine that provide EMS services. 

    It reflects a collective intent to establish responsive EMS services under municipal oversight in an era of changing demographics and population increases.

    And for Camden, it is to restore a function of fire department services that first started in 1936, when the town invested in its own ambulance.

    For several decades from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, Camden’s ambulance service — known originally as the Camden Fire Department First Aid Division, and later just as Camden First Aid — was responding to calls in town, as well as surrounding towns, on a regular basis. In 1967, however, the fire department’s First Aid Division was organizationally separated from Atlantic Engine Company No. 2 (Camden Fire Department).

    Camden First Aid initially ran as an auxiliary association – the precursors of today’s nonprofits – and was raising all of its own money from benefactors, even though it was an arm of Atlantic Engine Company 2 (Camden Fire Department).

    In 1996 Camden First Aid incorporated as a nonprofit, before collapsing financially in 2014. For the past 10 years, Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport have been contracting EMS Services with the privately owned North East Mobile Health Services.

    Camden’s former Fire Chief Robert Oxton recalls well the years when Camden First Aid was functioning side-by-side with the Fire Department.

    “I’m the one who split it up,” he said, remembering back to 1967-68. “I’ve always felt that people come before buildings, and it needed a head to be on scene. If there was a fire, I was fire chief, so we needed a head for the Camden First Aid.”

    That was soon after the original Snow Bowl lodge burned, and the Select Board decided on a change of leadership. Oxton was subsequently appointed Fire Chief and as chief, he was suddenly in charge of managing 60 volunteers, three paid dispatchers, a fire station and an ambulance service.

    But Oxton will be the first who will tell you that the town needs to now bring an ambulance back into the Fire Department fold.

    “I’m all for having an ambulance in the Fire Station,” he said. “I don’t want to see the ambulance take over the Fire Department. But I’m all for the concept of having an ambulance here. Had I known what was going on at Camden First Aid, it would have never happened.”

    Sitting a the conference table at the Camden Fire Department in late April, Oxton, who had been fire chief for 23 years, reflected on years past and the reasons certain decisions had been made. On the walls behind him were photos of former Camden fire chiefs and old fire engines, as well as an enlarged print of a Saturday Evening Post magazine cover, a 1954 illustration by Ben Kimberley whose inspiration was the Camden Fire Department.

    At age 86, Oxton still actively volunteers on the fire department, dedicating more than 63-plus years of service to the community. If there is a call, he will respond to the Robert Oxton Fire Station, on Washington Street, to lend a hand. 

    Oxton grew up in Rockland and when he turned 15, he was the first officially designated Junior Volunteer Fireman for that city. In 1961, he was recruited by then Camden Fire Chief Allen Payson to join Camden’s department, and by default, Camden First Aid. He eventually became fire chief in 1967, remaining so until 1993.

    Why does Oxton want Camden Fire and Rescue to have its own ambulance after so many decades?

    “For the community,” he said.

    And he also thinks it is a good that Rockport has been asking voters to approve an ambulance purchase.

    Coming full circle

    In 1936, Camden acquired its first ambulance, an American Red Cross Mobile Unit, and in the Town Report, it was billed, “A new service rendered free by Camden Fire Department.”

    The truck and equipment were purchased from, “donations of public-spirited citizens and Summer residents and guests,” wrote then Fire Chief Allen Payson. 

    In its first year of service, beginning Jan. 19, 1936, the Fire Department fielded 57 calls, and the ambulance traveled 943 miles.

    “Longest trip to Lewiston and Rumford at time of flood,” wrote Payson. (That Winter 1935-1936 flooding was historic, said the National Weather Service, occurring when a combination of heavy rain and melting snow afflicted New England for 10 days.)  

    During the 1940s, Camden First Aid meticulously recorded the number of calls, and noted how it would charge for “people out of town,” but sometimes would transport a patient who was without funds, “and we have done these jobs; it seems the be the only humane thing to do,” the 1946 Town Report said.

    During that time, the fire department’s ambulance service maintained, “the good relationship with the Laites by cooperating with them while they are out of town. We have used their ambulance a few trips this year, while ours was in use elsewhere.”

    John Laite, whose family owned Laite Funeral Home (now Long Funeral Home on Mountain Street) from 1944 to 1984, remembers the ambulance his father and uncle operated while he was growing up in the 1960s. 

    It was not uncommon in those days, post-dating the Civil War and through the 1920s, for funeral homes to offer ambulance service to hospitals. They had the right-size vehicles and cots that could accommodate the injured or ill.

    John’s father, Robert, and his Uncle Gilbert would respond to emergency calls as needed. With a cot in the back of the coach and curtains on the windows, they would unzip a flap in the ceiling, pop a light up on top of the roof, and it would be, “lights and sirens,” said Laite.

    The Laites discontinued that part of the business in 1969, and Camden First Aid became the sole ambulance service in town.

    Minutes from a July 28, 1953 Atlantic Engine Company 2 (Camden Fire Department) meeting reported an ambulance had been dispatched to Rockport to transport a patient to Camden Community Hospital (where Quarry Hill now is situated). That was the first call for a newly purchased ambulance.

    On July 31, 1953, an ambulance was dispatched to the Red Barn, while the next day, there was an emergency response to an accident in West Rockport at the intersection of routes 90 and 17. 

    During the 1960s, meeting minutes reflect business as usual. From January 1962 to December 1963, the Fire Department responded to 296 calls, and the ambulances accrued 7,840 miles. Another new ambulance, a Cadillac, arrived on Sept. 14, 1963, and was immediately put into use, reported Richard A. Moody, Emergency Ambulance Service president, Camden Fire Department.

    Those ambulances were different from today’s models — one was new van purchased at Boynton Chevrolet on Elm Street in Camden and donated to the fire department in 1972 by the American Legion Hall — but they served their purpose: To lend aid and comfort when residents were ill, injured and traumatized. And to take them to the hospital.

    A duty team was was on call for the ambulance service and a duty team for the fire department. Volunteers were paid 50 to 75 cents an hour, but only when an incident took place.

    There were no limitations as where the ambulance might go, said Oxton. 

    “And there was never a bad snowstorm that we did not have two people in here overnight for the ambulance. We had a couple of Army cots. Uncomfortable as could be. We used to bring them down from the attic and set them up on the floor.”

    But there was a time in 1963, “when we got caught short,” he said. 

    “At that time, I was running the Gulf Station [where Lucky Betty’s is now], and I got called, ‘the ferry’s coming over from Islesboro with a woman needing to go to the hospital. Well, you always took them to Camden Community Hospital, up on top of the hill, there was a brand new hospital up there, and we were all proud of it.”

    He and another duty team member got the woman in the ambulance, along with her own private nurse.

    “We were coming down Route 1, when we had the Cadillac ambulance, and I said something about Camden Community Hospital and she says, ‘ oh no, we’re going to New York.”

    Oxton said no, but her religion stipulated that she could not go to Camden Community Hospital.

    “And that’s when I learned that if you pick a patient up with the ambulance, if they say they’ve got to go to New York, you can’t take them to this hospital,” he said. “They’ve got to go to New York.”

    Oxton and Wendell Payson, his partner that day, had an Esso credit card in the ambulance and they headed to New York City.

    “We picked up a police escort in Connecticut that took us into New York City,” he said. ‘There was construction on the Merritt Parkway and I pulled off to a policeman and he said, ‘I’ll take you right where you’ve got to go. So on come his lights, and away we went to NYC. And then, he left. You think I knew how to get out of NYC? It seemed like every street I came to was one-way and going the other way. I never got home till about 5 a.m. the next morning.”

    While Chief Oxton separated Camden First Aid from the Fire Department, Harold Wentworth was voted in as president of Camden First Aid, and until the early 1950s, an ambulance sat either at the old municipal garage across the from the Camden Town Office on Washington Street, or beside beside Engine 1 in the fire station bay.

    Benefactors would quietly approach Oxton, asking him what was needed, and a check would appear, without fuss.

    Today, circumstances are different. Volunteer ranks for fire departments across the country have shrunk and career firefighters and EMS personnel now staff many municipal fire departments. It has been a trend that reflects social and economic changes over the past quarter century.

    As Camden shaped its budget last winter, the purchase of a $400,000 ambulance was included. As the Select Board finalized the budget in April, however, the ambulance expenditure was withdrawn, concluding the town would continue discussing whether to fully adopt a medical transport service. 

    This is where Oxton disagrees.

    “I monitor Knox County 24-7, always have,” Oxton said. “And when I hear they need an ambulance in Lincolnville, and there’s only one ambulance on duty at North East Ambulance, and that’s over in Rockville, they need an ambulance in Lincolnville now. They don’t need it in half an hour. They don’t need to call mutual aid from Rockland to get an ambulance to Lincolnville or to Molyneaux Road in Camden, or anywhere up here. It is too long a time span.”

    He is happy that Camden already has invested EMS equipment.

    “I’’m real happy with what Matthew [Heath] and the Chief have done to put equipment on the trucks out here to be first responder to save a life. I say that because, in all honesty, I have saved some lives over the years and I know if you had to wait for an ambulance for 15 minutes that life would have been gone.”

    In the meantime, Camden will, if voters approve, continue contracting in 2024-2025 with North East Mobile Health Services for $189,500 for EMS services.

    Oxton urged Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley to begin raising money for the purchase of an ambulance, recalling the largess of community members from years past. But he does acknowledge that there is now, “a different atmosphere in the community as far as giving money to a special piece of fire equipment.”

    “If those folks are still out there, they can give to Atlantic Engine Company No. 2,” said Farley. AEC 2 is an IRS 501(c)3 nonprofit supporting the Camden Fire Department.

    “I would like to see that happen,” said Oxton. “Some people can give, and save money by giving.”

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 706-6657