Southern Aroostook Emergency Medical Service celebrated its grand opening Saturday with an open house celebration. The new ambulance service has been busy since taking over Jan. 1 for many of the area's smaller communities. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — If the first few months of operation are any indication, southern Aroostook’s newest ambulance service is already a resounding success.

Southern Aroostook Emergency Medical Services officials welcomed the public Saturday into its new base of operations with an open house. Located in a building that had housed a former furniture business at 45 Access Road in Houlton, the ambulance service has been very busy during its first three months of operation.

The newly created $1.1 million ambulance service officially launched Jan. 1. The move came about after the town of Houlton, which had provided emergency medical coverage for the 10 communities involved on a contract basis, significantly raised the amount it was charging for its service in January, 2021.

Unlike other services that are struggling to find enough employees, the Southern Aroostook ambulance filled all of its spots from the onset. The group hired 18 full- and part-time workers, including five advanced emergency medical technicians, four basic EMTs, four paramedics and five drivers.

“If you treat people right, they will come to work for  you,” said Matthew Farrington, director for the new service. “We should be fully staffed for medics and our advanced EMTs can do almost as much as a medic.”

Farrington is the assistant chief for the Millinocket Fire and Rescue, and plans to continue to work full time there, while spending his days off in Houlton as director of the new service.

Farrington said the service has already responded to 222 calls. From the onset, the service was prepared to cover multiple events at the same time.

“Our first night here, we had a call come in at 12:18 a.m. and as we were getting that patient to the hospital, we had another call come in,” he said. “We have never left anyone stranded and never will.”

Smyrna and Merrill Town Manager Candy Nevers, who serves as chair of the Southern Aroostook Emergency Medical Service committee, said pulling everything together in time to meet the Jan. 1, 2022, deadline was not easy.

The group had to find a suitable building, enough ambulances to meet the needs, equipment and staff all in a relatively short amount of time.

“Our goal was to have this up and running at the first of the year, because we had to,” Nevers said. “Our board did an incredible job getting this place ready in a short amount of time.”

The service is still looking for per diem employees to assist with runs, including for multiple transports to Bangor hospitals, as well as those farther south, for patients seeking medical care.

“We are busier than we thought we would be,” Nevers said. “We are doing runs that we did not anticipate doing this early. It’s because there is such a huge need right now and we are here to serve.”

To facilitate that need, the service acquired three used ambulances, which should meet the group’s needs for several years, Nevers said. 

Amity, Hammond, Hodgdon, Linneus, Littleton, Ludlow, Merrill, Monticello, New Limerick and Smyrna are all part of the new ambulance service’s coverage area. Nevers said additional towns have already contacted them for information about joining, but for now, the group will stick with the initial 10 communities.

“Smyrna is the farthest away, but we can be there in 18 minutes, depending on where we have to go,” Farrington said. 

Continuing education will be another key component of the new ambulance service. That training will come from staff member Paul Stewart, a former paramedic with the Houlton Ambulance Service, who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. 

In recognition of Stewart’s efforts, the group unveiled a plaque Saturday that hangs inside the new facility dedicating the training center to him.

One of the new emergency responders plans to take a course on first aid for animals.

“We regularly work with law enforcement and they use service animals,” Nevers explained. “We will have somebody trained to assist with their care, should the need arise.”

The initial cost to create such a service has been steep for the 10 communities involved, but the payoff is something organizers feel is well worth the high price tag.

Some towns were able to appropriate money from their surplus accounts to cover their share of the startup, but others, like Hodgdon, had to hold a special town meeting to approve borrowing a large sum of money for the plan. For Hodgdon, that price tag came in at $240,000.