The Sebasticook Valley Hospital ambulance that is housed at the Newport public safety building will soon be joined by the first ambulance the town of Newport has owned itself. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Chretien

NEWPORT, Maine — Newport will have a new ambulance at its public safety building — the first the town has ever owned — before the end of the year.

The Newport Selectboard has approved a purchase order worth $247,300, which covers the new ambulance, along with a patient power-load system and a power cot, Town Manager Jim Ricker said. The ambulance, which the town is getting from Autotronics in Bangor, is being built.

During a time when public safety departments across Maine are struggling with staffing issues and a shortage of ambulance services, this is a significant move for Newport and follows several years of work behind the scenes. While the ambulance will initially serve as a backup, the town hopes it will eventually alleviate the current strain on the fire department, which responds to emergencies in many nearby towns that have lost ambulance services over the years.

Once the new ambulance makes it to Newport, it could take up to six months to fully equip the vehicle and acquire state licensing. Staffing is another challenge the town and fire department will have to tackle, Fire Chief Jeff Chretien said.

“The hope is the town will start another committee to look at the idea of staffing the Newport ambulance on a 24-hour basis,” he said.

Newport Fire Chief Jeff Chretien. Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Chretien

Ricker is optimistic, citing conversations with a number of people who have expressed interest in working for the Newport Fire Department once funding is determined. T he department has two full-time staff members — Chretien and his wife, firefighter Amanda Chretien — along with 30 others who are part time or call firefighters, meaning they’re paid based on when they respond to an emergency.

Newport has $172,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds available, plus $90,000 in a capital equipment fund, that will cover the purchase of the ambulance and some of its equipment, Ricker said.

Later on, the town may use revenue funds in its medical reimbursement account ($30,000 is available) and $10,050 in townspeople donations to completely outfit the ambulance, he said.

“If I had to give you a best guess right now, it’s going to be around $24,000 to finish all the equipment needed in the back of the ambulance,” Ricker said.

Under a current emergency service agreement with Northern Light Health, Newport keeps an ambulance provided by Sebasticook Valley Hospital at its public safety building. The ambulance is staffed by split crews — one EMS worker from the hospital and another from the Newport Fire Department.

“We’re fortunate to have an ambulance here with a shared crew with Northern Light,” Ricker said, adding that at one point, the hospital had three to four ambulances available. “They always had a 911 ambulance in Newport and another in Pittsfield. Sometimes the ambulance in Pittsfield simply isn’t available, which leaves the Newport ambulance to be a regional type service.”

When the town began its agreement with Sebasticook Valley, it was supposed to cover emergencies in Newport and a third of Palmyra, Chretien said. Because of the incredible pressures that emergency medical responders have faced, especially during the pandemic, Newport ends up taking the ambulance to Corinna, Plymouth, St. Albans and other area towns, Chretien said.

“Occasionally two ambulances are staffed, but it’s not an everyday thing,” he said. “If we have the one ambulance in Newport, we could end up at any one of the communities. It has brought our call volume up 60 percent.”

In the last decade, Chretien has seen surrounding communities, including Hartland, St. Albans, Corrina and Dixmont, lose their ambulance services for various reasons. “It’s expensive to operate,” he said.

Before Newport’s partnership with Northern Light Health, the town worked with G&H Ambulance. The Glenburn-based service provided an ambulance, which was also staffed by split crews, but the relationship ended after about 11 months due to billing issues and conflicts with taxpayers in Newport that couldn’t be resolved, Chretien said.

Although Newport Selectboard members decided to move ahead with the purchase order for a new ambulance during last week’s regular meeting, a long discussion ensued before the vote. Members of the ambulance committee — which includes Chretien, Ricker, Levant Fire Chief Eric Strout and five citizens from Newport — indicated their support for the ambulance. Several Selectboard members questioned the long-term implications to taxpayers.

Ricker acknowledged the sum of money needed for the project is significant. He also noted Newport’s aging population — “the calls for service just keep going up,” he said, and the town owes its residents the reliability of meeting their medical needs.

“One of the big things, too, is when we have our own ambulance and we’re responding to calls, we have the ability to bill for those calls,” Ricker said. “Any money we receive will certainly offset the cost of running this ambulance.”

When the new ambulance arrives, Newport will continue its agreement with Sebasticook Valley. Having another ambulance, once it’s staffed and ready to operate, will hopefully allow the fire department to focus more on responding to residents in Newport and parts of Palmyra, which it contracts with to provide services.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve in Newport and see where it leads us,” Ricker said. “I do believe at this juncture that this is one of the most important investments we could make for emergency services.”