Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The town of Mount Desert is taking over the local volunteer ambulance service, which has had difficulty with staffing, and is looking to at least double the size of its fire department to handle the increase in calls.

The move is similar to what other municipal fire departments in Maine and nationwide are doing because of a shortage of volunteers and increasing challenges in funding private ambulance services.  

Northeast Harbor Ambulance, which has provided emergency medical services to the town since 1938, told the town last year it was planning to dissolve by January 2023, according to Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender. The private service cannot attract enough volunteer or part-time emergency medical technicians to continue operating.

That’s why the fire department is planning to expand this year so it can take on local emergency medical services.

To start off, Mount Desert is proposing that it spend $950,000 to upgrade its fire station in the village of Somesville so that firefighters on duty will have a central place to respond from when calls come in, according to Bender. The project, which will go before voters at a special town meeting on March 8, would create crew quarters for the town’s staff firefighter/EMTs, including space to sleep, prepare and eat meals, and an office, he said.

“We have no crew quarters in Mount Desert,” Bender said

Firefighters and emergency medical technicians now respond to calls from their homes after hours and on weekends.

Bender said the town also is looking to expand its main fire station in the village of Northeast Harbor, seven miles from Somesville, at a preliminary estimated cost of around $4.5 million. That project, which voters likely will consider at Mount Desert’s annual town meeting in May, would include the addition of a fourth truck bay and a second floor that would have four bunk rooms, bathrooms, meeting and fitness rooms, and offices.

The capital projects are needed, Bender said, so that the town can staff its fire and ambulance departments around the clock. The town has four full-time firefighters now, not including the chief, but likely will look to having four firefighter/EMTs on duty for each shift — two to respond to fires, and two to respond to medical emergencies.

That could mean having as many as 12 firefighter/EMTs on staff, but Bender said the town is considering whether to pursue a cooperative coverage agreement with Bar Harbor.

Bender said with that possible agreement in mind, Mount Desert currently is looking to have three firefighter/EMTs on duty for each shift, with maybe a fourth paid on a per-day basis, pending voter approval at Mount Desert’s annual town meeting this spring.

“That way, we can run an ambulance and a fire truck at the same time,” the chief said.

Last spring, staffing shortages at Northeast Harbor Ambulance led to the fire department to assist the ambulance on calls, which has resulted in the department’s call volume increasing significantly, according to Bender. Previously, the department responded to roughly 200 emergency calls a year, but this year it expects to respond to between 500 and 600.

The town applied to the state and received a first responder EMT license last year, to help the ambulance service respond to medical calls. Now it also is applying for a separate transport license, which will allow the town also to operate its own ambulances and to transport patients to hospitals.  

The shift to increasing the size of its professional emergency response staff reflects a nationwide trend over the past decade in which fire departments are having a harder time recruiting volunteer firefighters. Private ambulance services also have faced greater strain because of reduced reimbursement rates from Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance companies, and from having to adhere to more strict training and bookkeeping requirements.

Nearby, Ellsworth is also looking to add three more firefighter/EMTs to its staff as it has taken on more medical calls, and has said it may consider establishing its own ambulance service, even though Northern Light Ambulance already operates in Ellsworth.

In the past couple of years in Aroostook County, towns have been pursuing cooperative agreements to form and share their own ambulance services to help make sure their residents can get emergency medical care.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....