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Harpswell report recommends greater town role in emergency services

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Harpswell report recommends greater town role in emergency services

HARPSWELL — As the final touches are put on the town's new emergency medical building, officials are contemplating the future organization of emergency services in town. 

A working group was assigned in January to review the town's EMS services and develop recommendations for the Board of Selectmen. The group released its report last week.

Among suggestions in the 41-page report are several measures to increase the town's oversight, coordination and delivery of emergency services.

"The more financial contributions the town is making, the more it needs to be actively involved with some of the decisions regarding the service," Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said. 

The three-person working group included Eiane, Deputy Administrator Terri Sawyer, and Town Treasurer Marguerite Kelly. 

A trio of independent, all-volunteer fire-rescue departments have traditionally provided fire and emergency services to Harpswell Neck, Bailey and Orr's islands, and Cundy's Harbor.

While volunteers "continue to be the backbone of service delivery in Harpswell," increasing town support for emergency services means its role must shift to "that of a full partner in planning for the future of rescue services," the Working Group concluded.

"I think it's a bit unusual to have three different independent entities providing that service to one town," Eiane said. "I think you can sense that we want to move towards some type of consolidated approach. We think that would be helpful."

The group broadly recommended the town should work with departments to create a formal volunteer schedule, establish a town committee to create a "road map" for future emergency services, and town staff should continue to be "actively involved" with issues.

More specific suggestions include consolidating volunteer fire and rescue services, expanding a centralized EMT garage near the town office, billing for services, and paying volunteers, among others.

The working group reported that the three departments agreed uncertainty about volunteer levels could "cause the rescue system to collapse," and indicated their willingness to explore a "road map"  and possible consolidation with town officials.

Selectmen have yet to discuss or act on the recommendations.

Because of the interconnection between fire and rescue in the volunteer departments, some of its recommendations apply to both, the working group noted.

In the recent past, the town's EMS system has been stretched to the breaking point, as older volunteers drop off the rolls and strict regulatory and training requirements present disincentives for new recruits.

Plummeting volunteerism comes as the town's aging population increases its demand for services, the working group found. 

According to surveys provided to the working group by the three departments, only 15 EMTs were available to respond in Harpswell at the time the report was being compiled. 

The Cundy's Harbor Fire Department reported the most staff, with five basic and two intermediate EMTs and one paramedic. The Orr's and Bailey Islands Fire Department, conversely, reported having only one EMT to provide coverage. 

Since then, the number of volunteers has begun to rebound, OBI Fire Chief Ed Blain said on Wednesday.

The three departments recently graduated 13 new EMTs, who are now getting their licenses. A new class of recruits is also being organized, Blain said. 

As volunteer numbers fall, the town has taken on a financial and administrative responsibility for providing medical aid to its taxpayers. 

According to the working group, appropriations for all emergency services including EMS and fire has increased 248 percent in the past 10 years, from almost $224,000 in 2005 to more than $779,600 this year. 

Much of the increase can be attributed to the town's decision, in 2011, to contract with Mid Coast Hospital for a part-time paramedic. Voters this year also approved another $278,000 for around-the-clock coverage. 

The paramedics, along with an emergency vehicle dedicated to the town, are housed in the recently-named Harpswell Emergency Medical Services building, near the town office on Mountain Road. 

On a recent morning, paramedic Kip Newell led a tour of the compact space, which includes a single-vehicle garage with a bank of personal lockers, a full-size bathroom, and a combination kitchen, rest area and communications hub in the back. 

Four or five paramedics have been assigned to Harpswell, working alternating 24-hour shifts, Newell said.

So far, the increased call volume in the summer has kept them busy. The station took four calls on Saturday and three before noon on Monday, he said.

Newell, who also works for the Bath and Brunswick fire departments, said the volunteer fallout isn't confined to Harpswell; departments across the state are facing the same challenges. 

The joint professional-volunteer approach Harpswell is trying out might end up being the best way forward, Newell suggested. 

"It's a good idea," he said. "It covers a base you can't keep uncovered."

All three departments told the working group that additional training and support provided by the paramedics helped them recruit new EMTs and retain their veteran volunteers.

"In my mind, the model is an incredible asset for allowing the continuation of a volunteer service," Blain said.

He said he hadn't reviewed the report in-depth, but planned to comment on it at a future workshop.

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