Harpswell selectmen seek meetings with EMS heads

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HARPSWELL — Selectmen are proposing quarterly workshops with the town’s fire and rescue department chiefs as a way to track the department’s operations and volunteer staffing. 

The proposition is an alternative to setting up a town-wide volunteer schedule and a separate committee to plan for the future of emergency services, which were recommended in a report released in July

Board of Selectmen Chairmen Rick Daniel suggested quarterly meetings at a workshop Monday, Oct. 6, with representatives of the Cundy’s Harbor, Harpswell Neck, and Bailey and Orr’s Islands fire and rescue departments.

Quarterly workshops will help the town have a clearer idea of the number of volunteers available to the departments, and areas where there might be gaps in their operations, without resorting to a mandatory volunteer schedule, which is opposed by the departments, Daniel said.

“You sort of rely on a feel for your pool,” Daniel told the department chiefs. “You know whats there, you know who’s available, and that’s sort of an ebbing, flowing situation.

“I would like (selectmen) to be able to build that same sense of what’s going on in the three departments in town.”

Selectmen are likely to vote on implementing the quarterly workshops at their next meeting, Daniel said.

With the departments’ reluctance to implement a volunteer schedule, selectmen need another way to gather data and plan ahead in case weaknesses in the system develop because of a lack of volunteers, Selectman Ellie Multer said. 

In an undated letter to the town, Multer asked to be provided with data on the date and time of individual calls and the arrival times of paramedics, ambulances, and EMTs. 

“All of you are very aware of where there is a problem, or where there is a delay,” she told the department chiefs at Monday’s workshop. “That information isn’t here, we don’t know. So we’re kind of fumbling in the dark in terms of trying to look ahead and see where things are going.”

Harpswell’s emergency services have traditionally been provided by the three independent all-volunteer companies.

In recent years the number of volunteers has dropped off as call volume has increased, leading the town to hire Mid Coast Hospital for 24/7 paramedic coverage.

The study group proposed that the town play a larger role in administration and delivery of emergency services, in line with its financial commitment of more than $779,600 this year.

While not opposed to the quarterly meetings, department heads questioned whether the data being requested by selectmen will be helpful. 

Harpswell Neck Fire Chief Dave Mercier noted that while departments could have lots of volunteers on their books, the number available to respond to a call could be far less, depending on the time of day and season. 

“It’s no secret that if you looked at any three of these departments and we have a fire call during the day, the turnout is minimal,” Mercier told selectmen. 

Jonathan Burbank, president of the board of directors for the Cundy’s Harbor department, added that a sudden emergency in a single department, like a disabled vehicle, could reverberate through the system. 

The town and departments should come up with a standard plan to put into place if a single department is knocked out of action and the others have to pick up the slack, he said. 

“That, to me, is the outcome we should try and push for, the sense of being ready for the decline, however it occurs,” he said. 

Selectmen should also be considering what it is expected from the services, whether to stick with a primarily volunteer service or to look for professional, full-time departments like larger towns, said Ed Blaine, from the Orr’s and Bailey Islands department. 

Ensuring a fully-staffed response to every call will require a substantial investment by the town, Blaine said. 

In a phone interview Tuesday, Cundy’s Harbor Fire Department Chief Ben Wallace said Daniel’s workshop idea was the best option the town has.

“It opens up a direct line of communication,” Wallace said. “We’re certainly happy for them to have a seat at the table.”

The workshops should give the selectmen and chiefs a venue to work through the questions raised at Monday’s session and the study, Daniel said after the meeting. 

“Most of all,” he told the department heads, “I want us all on the same page as we move forward.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.