CAMDEN — Fire chiefs and municipal managers in five Midcoast municipalities have talked about forming a regional community-owned ambulance service, and are now ready to take the idea before elected leaders. The idea will debut formally on Tuesday, Feb. 26, when Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley will ask the Select Board in that town if it wants to pursue joining Rockland, Rockport, Hope and Lincolnville town-owned emergency medical service.
Currently, Rockland’s fire station and EMS operates as one system, and that would not change under the proposed structure; however, the four other towns would organize and tangentially join Rockland to streamline EMS services throughout the region.
In doing so, the four towns of Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport, would discontinue its annual contract with the privately-owned North East Mobile Health Services, which is based in Scarborough and has a regional presence, with a local base on Route 1 in Rockport.
The four towns have been contracting with North East since 2013, when voters endorsed at their individual June town meetings to contract with the Scarborough company, following an arduous decision to break ties with the struggling, and now dissolved, local nonprofit, Camden First Aid.
Since 2013, the cost of contracting with North East has increased, mostly dramatically in 2018. Initially, the towns were charged an annual fee of $10,000; Camden’s proposed 2019 budget carries a line item for North East Ambulance Service of $155,000. This year, 2018-2019, Camden is spending $140,000 on the ambulance service.
What holds for future price increases is an unknown variable, he said.
“Are we better off making the investment ourselves and controlling the level of service,” he asked.
Those are the questions that the five fire chiefs discussed two weeks ago, in preparation for a broader community discussion about what the vision looks like, and what it might cost taxpayers.
The Feb. 26 meeting will include Farley, along with Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock, Rockport Fire Chief Jason Peasley, Hope Fire Chief Clarence Keller, and Lincolnville Fire Chief Don Fullington, III.
Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell and Rockland City Manager Tom Lutrell first broached the idea last year, as the Camden-Rockport-Rockland portion of the Midcoast continually refines its local response to fires, crashes, medical incidents and the need for medical transports to the larger hospitals in Portland and beyond.
“The city has been discussing regionalization for many years and I think this is the start of more to come,” said Luttrell.
Lutrell had asked Rockland Fire Chief Whytock to sketch an initial plan and initiate talks with other fire chiefs.
Currently, Rockland EMS tends to its citizenry in Rockland, as well as Owls Head, and occasionally helps out with other area towns, especially when a trained paramedic is needed or when North East is short handed and is transporting a patient to another hospital in the state.
All the chiefs “were positive and enthusiastic” about initial plan, said Farley, indicating, “it is something we can get behind and support.”
Municipally-owned ambulance services are not uncommon; Bangor, Bucksport, St. George and Warren, as well as South Thomaston, Thomaston, and Union, all have their own EMS systems. Some work better than others, and the model is long-ingrained in Maine.
Organizing a consortium of towns is not as common, but the four towns in this instance — Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport — already work side-by-side with the handling of municipal waste, and in sharing the cost of a regional high school.
The goal is to establish an EMS system whose roots are grounded in service, and not focused primarily on the bottom line.
Camden Select Board member Taylor Benzie agrees with that and says the idea is long overdue. He has worked at Knox County Regional Communications Center, the area’s dispatch, and is a firefighter.
“The private, for-profit system hasn’t been working as well as it could,” he said. “It is an apples to oranges approach to municipal business.”
Fire departments in the area already operate together by virtue of mutual aid. Just the sounding alarm of a structure fire automatically sends the current of high alert throughout municipal fire departments in neighboring towns, as they rush to their own departments, get into gear, and respond to the scene.
“This proposal with Rockland would help to bring EMS essentially under the same roof, which could mean working and training much more closely with the fire departments, and add additional Fire/EMS personnel in stations that did not previously have them,” said Benzie.
Farley also endorses that notion.
“Fire and EMS work so closely in tandem that you need the next level of coordination,” he said. “This would alleviate a lot of problems.”
The community EMS structure would entail purchasing two new ambulances of the same layout and design as the two that Rockland already owns.
Those two ambulances could be moved around the towns as needed, but with each of them more consistently and strategically parked, one at the Camden Fire Station and one at the West Rockport Fire Station.
The latter is due for a rebuild, which the Town of Rockport is currently addressing.
Farley said Camden has no need to expand the public safety building on Washington Street to accommodate an ambulance; instead, the fire department would downsize its current engine fleet.
The town doesn’t need all the fire engines it has, he said, and by downsizing, Camden can more efficiently train firefighters, as well as school them in basic EMT skills.
“I've heard discussion about it being an effective recruiting tool for new on-call/volunteer firefighters,” said Benzie. “The number of volunteers and on-call personnel have been declining over the years nationwide. I think if there's a young person living in the community who is interested in volunteering with a fire department, but is especially interested in the emergency medical side, this could give that young person easier access to EMS training and work right in their community. It could be a really effective tool for the fire departments to recruit and retain new volunteers directly from their communities.”
The proposed plan, still in a preliminary phase, calls for hiring six firefighter/EMTs, each with salary and benefits. The positions would require paramedic training, as well as relevant firefighting credentials. This model already exists at the Rockland Fire Station, and would be replicated by the community EMS service.
The five municipalities would work together under one EMS supervisor, who would work a 40-hour week.
Farley said the community ambulance service would not transport patients to other hospitals in the state, as North East currently does. That would leave the business door open for other ambulance services to pursue, he said.
Response and responsibilities
According to the initial plan outline, when a call is made for an ambulance, Knox County Communications Center, in Rockland, would alert the community EMS service, which would, in turn, decide what manpower to dispatch to an incident.
Those range from vehicle fires to crashes that require extrication, to search and rescue on mountains and lakes, boat fires, and medical emergencies.
If the Camden Select Board endorses moving forward with this idea, then the fire chiefs would discuss a more detailed implementation plan, including fiscal which Caler-Bell would talk more concretely with the town administrators and managers of the five town towns.
“It is a quality of community effort,” said Farley. “We hope they give the idea a chance. We think it would be good for everyone.”
The Feb. 26 meeting of the Camden Select Board begins at 6:30 p.m. in the John French Meeting Room, and is streamed live and televised on local cable Time Warner Channel 1303.
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