Harpswell assesses future of emergency medical services

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HARPSWELL — When Town Meeting in March approved around-the-clock paramedic services through next year, it was seen as an aid for the town’s aging population.

But doubt remains about the town’s ability to recruit and retain volunteer emergency medical technicians, who have served for decades as the backbone for local services, and who now supplement the town’s paid paramedics.

To help determine how the town will provide emergency medical services in the future,  town officials have formed an EMS Working Group. The group, funded by a $3,500 expenditure from Town Meeting, began meeting on a weekly basis on Wednesday.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, who serves on the panel with Deputy Town Administrator Terri Sawyer and Town Treasurer Marguerite Kelly, on Tuesday said part of the group’s mission is to have recommendations to the Board of Selectmen by June on how to move forward with local services.

Eiane said a possible recommendation will likely fall somewhere on the continuum between a purely volunteer EMT model, and a paid staff EMT model.

The town currently has one paid paramedic on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, supplemented by volunteer EMTs from the town’s three fire departments.

Eiane said that model could be continued. “It’s taken a lot of pressure off volunteers to know there is a trained paramedic for every rescue involved,” she said. 

Paramedics are a couple of training levels above most of the town’s volunteer EMTs, so they are able to provide more on-site treatment when responding to emergencies. In addition, their response time has proved to be nearly four minutes faster on average than volunteer EMTs.

“They’re often on scene before we’re able to get the ambulance rolling out of the station,” Orrs and Bailey Islands Fire Chief Ed Blaine said earlier this year.

To help determine how the town should move forward, the EMS Working Group has sent surveys to the fire departments to assess how the current system is working, how it can be improved, how it has impacted their ability to recruit and retain volunteer EMTs, and whether the system can work in the long term.

“The whole issue is how large is that pool of volunteers we can attract,” Eiane said. It’s promising to have more than a dozen volunteers in EMT training, she added, although it remains unknown if they can be retained.

As the town’s population continues to age – with the median age increasing from 45 in 2000 to 53 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census – Eiane said the town’s ability to continue its volunteerism streak could be hampered in the future.

“We have every indication (the new recruits will stay on),” she said, “but these are volunteers and it can be difficult for some of them to make this commitment.”

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.