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Aging of Harpswell punctuates debate on EMS coverage

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Aging of Harpswell punctuates debate on EMS coverage

HARPSWELL — A special Town Meeting on Dec. 7 will grapple with a proposal to provide emergency medical services around-the-clock next year.

The vote will increase the town's dedicated EMS coverage provided by Mid Coast Hospital from 12 hours a day, five days a week to 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the first three months of 2014.

It will come at a cost for taxpayers, at first by a little, then by more if voters approve continued 24/7 services at next year's March Town Meeting that cover the following 12 months.

The $34,800 recommended to add extra coverage from January 2014 to March 2014 to an existing contract could impact taxes by one-third of 1 percent next year.

And the nearly $155,000 to increase services for the following year will increase taxes by about 2 percent if approved at the March Town Meeting.

But for Orr's and Bailey Islands Fire Chief Ed Blain, the cost will be worthwhile for an aging community that has a shortage of volunteer first responders.

According to U.S. Census figures, the town's median age increased from 45 in 2000 to 53 in 2010. In the same time span, the percentage of residents 45 years or older increased by nearly 22 percent.

Blain said while the town's aging population increases the risk for stroke and heart attacks, it also hampers the ability of the town's three fire and rescue departments to recruit more able-bodied volunteers.

And, he said, because the hired paramedic service can respond faster than volunteer first responders – who may have to find a way out of their day jobs before getting behind the wheel of an ambulance – it just makes sense.

"Clearly, if it's me or my family that is feeling the pressure on their chest and it's a dire emergency situation, it's very comforting to know the quick response is coming," Blain said. "What's that worth for me? It's hard to put a number on it."

The Board of Selectmen was already preparing to propose 24/7 EMS services to begin in April 2014 for the same reason the the town originally sought the service: a dearth of first-responder volunteers.

But when Blain learned that his force of three emergency medical technicians will shrink to one by the end of the year – with the remaining volunteer living out-of-town – he knew something had to happen sooner.

"My numbers are desperately low," he said.

Blain said he has also stepped up recruitment efforts to bring in new EMT volunteers. 

His department, at 1600 Harpswell Islands Road, will hold free EMT classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings through April, starting Jan. 21, 2014. He said interested parties can learn more about the classes by calling 833-5199 or e-mailing info@obifd.org.

So far, the response has been promising, Blain said. Four people have committed and about four more have said they are considering it.

But that means any new EMT volunteers won't be ready for live action until at least June or July, Blain said, which is why it will still be important to have increased service from Mid Coast Hospital.

And that's not the only other reason.

David Hudson, the town's EMS coordinator from Mid Coast Hospital, said paramedics can provide more on-site treatment to patients than EMTs can, mainly because they have received more training.

"The paramedic level is the most advanced level there is," Hudson said. "How it's really described is what the emergency room does in the first 15 minutes."

This means they are able to provide a wider array of medications for cardiac and respiratory problems, and have a larger tool set.

"The sooner you can get a paramedic to the patient, the better the outcomes are depending on the problem," he said.

The December Town Meeting begins at 10 a.m. on Dec. 7 at Harpswell Community School, 308 Harpswell Islands Road.

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