Harpswell rescue officials take hard line against possible management changes

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HARPSWELL — The heads of the town’s fire and rescue departments are pushing back against recommendations of a working group tasked with evaluating emergency services. 

Chief among those recommendations are creation of a centralized, town-wide volunteer schedule, and a special committee to develop a “road map” for the future organization of the town’s emergency services.

At a Board of Selectmen workshop last week, the department chiefs expressed their opposition to the schedule, saying their volunteers didn’t like the idea, and the special committee, suggesting it is unnecessary because a fire and rescue committee already exists.

Despite their opposition, the chiefs acknowledged the town should play a larger role in emergency services, although without a firm idea of what that role might look like.

Selectmen have not taken any action on the proposals made by the working group.

Harpswell’s traditional emergency system relies on three all-volunteer departments, where volunteers have dropped off sharply as call volumes have been rising.

As a result, the town hired Mid Coast Hospital to provide part-time paramedic service in 2011, and upgraded the contract to full-time coverage this year.

As the town’s responsibility for emergency fire and medical services has grown, so has its costs, going from almost $224,000 in 2005 to more than $779,600 this year.

In recent months, the stress on the system has subsided as volunteer numbers have rebounded and the impact of the 24/7 paramedic service was felt.

Despite a positive outlook, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said at the workshop, a coordinated volunteer schedule should be implemented as soon as possible to see how many people the departments can rely on and to identify coverage gaps. 

Eiane, along with Assistant Town Administrator Terri Sawyer and Treasurer Marguerite Kelly, made up the working group.

Chiefs from all three departments responded that their volunteers have told them they would not sign up for shifts if they were forced into a centralized schedule.

Cundy’s Harbor Fire and Rescue Chief Ben Wallace said his department doesn’t maintain a schedule, but he knows when he can rely on his volunteers and when he needs assistance from the other departments.

“I have a feeling for my squad and I know generally who’s around,” Wallace told selectmen, adding that if the town suddenly implemented a formal schedule, selectmen would “have a revolt on your hands.”

“We seem to have a good turnout,” he said. “As long as we have that good turnout, why would we shake that hornets nest?”

With effective communication and partnership between the three services, the system can provide almost complete coverage to the town, he added. 

“Our mutual aid agreements have never failed us,” Wallace said.

Even though her department uses a flexible, month-to-month, schedule, its volunteers have also said they will withdraw if they are forced to commit to a formal schedule, Harpswell Neck Rescue Chief Gail Hart said.

Not only are current volunteers against the proposal, prospective volunteers are also turned off by the idea, said Ed Blain, the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department chief.

Blaine, the recruitment leader for the three departments, said the mention of a schedule is hurting his attempts to bring in another class of volunteer medics and is a key topic of concern for possible volunteers when he talks with them.

“I have people really waiting to see what the outcome is going to be on this issue,” he said.

“I think we can get more people to volunteer, and retain people who are volunteering, without a mandated schedule,” Blaine said, adding that rather than helping the situation, the suggestion of a schedule is creating an obstruction.

Eiane repeated that the intent of the schedule is to see where the system could be improved, but if the departments believe it is working smoothly, it might not be necessary.

“We don’t want to create a problem that doesn’t exist,” she told the chiefs.

Establishing a new committee to look into a “road map” for the future of emergency services was also panned by Wallace.

The committee would be tasked with taking a comprehensive look at how to organize the town’s system to prevent another personnel crisis.

Ideas proposed by the working group included paying volunteers, billing clients, and centralizing services near the town office.

For the time being, Wallace said, the system is operating smoothly and the departments are cooperating with one another better than they have in several years.

If problems arise, the town’s existing fire and rescue committee and inter-department dialogue are appropriate vehicles to confront them, he argued.

But Selectman Elinor Multer said the increasing financial burden on taxpayers requires elected officials to be involved in planning the organization of fire and rescue services. 

“This issue is much broader than how to implement something,” Multer said. “It’s a policy issue, it needs to have public representatives at the table.”

“Look at the money guys,” she added. “It’s time to put somebody at the table that represents the taxpayers’ point of view.”

David Mercier, assistant fire chief for Harpswell Neck, agreed an overall look at the system is crucial, regardless of how the new committee is formed. 

Even though it might be working well at the moment, the departments can’t ignore reality, Mercier said, because as the town ages, more pressure will be put on volunteers, increasing the chance of another crisis. 

“I think it’s irresponsible to abandon the process,” he said. “The process is too important to the town, too important to the people, for us not to try to work through a committee and be serious about developing that road map.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.