The city of Belfast just got a lot more generous with its wages for people who work on the ambulance crew.
City councilors unanimously voted at Tuesday night’s regular meeting to substantially increase the per-shift amount the city will pay its volunteer emergency medical technicians and ambulance drivers.
The move came as communities across the state are grappling with a shortage of firefighters and other emergency responders. It’s a crisis that has made finding enough workers to staff full crews challenging, if not impossible. Belfast officials hope that bumping the pay rates for drivers and emergency medical technicians will make it easier to attract and retain workers.
“The call numbers seem to be going up all the time, and the number of first responders we have to use is diminishing,” Belfast Fire Chief Patrick Richards told the council. “We’re in a competitive market and we have a small pool to pick from. We have to be competitive and keep up.”
Previously, the city paid volunteer ambulance crew members $60 to be on call for a 12-hour shift, plus $15.06 per hour to drivers while they respond to a call and $19.16 per hour to both basic and advanced emergency medical technicians. In this case, the term “volunteer” is used to distinguish between the city’s full-time first responders and those who work some shifts.
Under the new system, the volunteers would have a choice of whether they are paid an hourly wage or via the current stipend system. If they choose to be paid an hourly rate and remain at the station for their shifts, they would earn $16 per hour for drivers and $18 to $20 for emergency medical technicians. That would total $192 per shift for ambulance drivers, $216 per shift for basic emergency medical technicians and $240 per shift for advanced emergency medical technicians.
City Manager Erin Herbig said that these first responders, who are considered volunteers by the city, have been busy. Last year, the Belfast Ambulance Service responded to 2,277 calls, which works out to an average of more than six calls per day. They went to 124 motor vehicle accidents, 119 cardiac incidents, nearly 200 falls, 118 respiratory issues and “many, many other types of dangerous and traumatic incidents for our citizens and their families,” she said.
“Across our country, our state and here in this community, we are struggling to fill these essential emergency positions,” Herbig said in her manager’s report. “When our department goes short-staffed, it means longer response times, and what could be the difference between life and death for any of us or anyone that we love.”
In addition to responding to calls, emergency responders who remain at the station during their shift will have additional duties to perform. Richards said there are daily checks that need to be performed on the ambulances and fire apparatus, as well as other station duties and training requirements.
“Within those paid periods, our [emergency medical service] responders and our fire personnel have to keep up with our training hours,” he said. “It’ll give them time to be at the station, where they can go over new equipment and better familiarize themselves with new procedures.”
Officials also hope the move will build camaraderie among the crew by better valuing their work.
“You build a team, you build a family. We can be a happy family and we can recruit good people, who are having fun when they come to work. And they’re getting the job done,” he said.
Councilor Mike Hurley sees the move as bringing Belfast’s emergency responders into the realm of fair wages.
“I think to have a really high-functioning organization, you have to pay people not just fairly, but a little bit more,” he said. “We want to stop the bleeding here. We don’t want people to seek opportunities elsewhere.”
Correction: A previous version of this article gave incorrect pay rates for the volunteer first responders.