Maine city mulls ambulance options after spike in EMS calls

Ellsworth officials are studying whether to partner with a private ambulance company or start their own service


By Nick Sambides Jr. 
Bangor Daily News

ELLSWORTH, Maine — City officials are studying whether to partner with a private ambulance company or start their own service after noticing a spike in ambulance assistance calls that firefighters handle.

Ellsworth firefighters have handled 26 medical assists — which is when firefighters help ambulance crews — so far this year. That leaves them on track to finish the year with about the same number of assists as they had in 2017 -- 44, according to statistics provided by the fire department. That compares to 16 in 2016.

The city’s population is expected to grow thanks to developments such as the new $200 million Jackson Lab facility set to open next month, and city officials are considering whether to construct a new public safety building within the next few years to address Ellsworth’s public safety needs for several decades, City Manager David A. Cole said.

All of this makes necessary the examination of the city’s emergency services, said City Councilor Gary Fourtier, a member of the city’s Emergency Medical Services Committee.

“We’re getting more calls to assist, and we are looking to improve city access to EMS,” Fourtier said Friday.

County Ambulance handles emergency ambulance service for Ellsworth and 13 other Hancock County municipalities. Its owners did not return telephone messages left Thursday and Friday.

Yet, while medical assists — where firefighters help ambulance workers with lifting patients into ambulances or help treat patients at emergencies — are climbing, the total number of emergency calls or patient transfers handled in Hancock County is not, according to statistics provided by Maine Emergency Medical Services, a unit of the Maine Department of Public Safety.

The county had 6,134 911 calls and 9,126 total ambulance calls -- a number that includes scheduled patient trips to and transfers between hospitals -- in 2017. There were 6,068 911 calls and 9,195 total calls in 2016, and 6,131 911 and 9,279 total calls the previous two years, according to Maine Emergency Medical Services.

Municipalities should not be too quick to get into the ambulance business, said Jay Bradshaw, executive director of Maine Ambulance Association, a nonprofit group representing municipal and private ambulance services.

Those who think that their towns will draw a lot of added revenue from such endeavors are often surprised to discover how challenging such services are to run, Bradshaw said.

“They have to recognize that it’s not just responding to 911 calls or long-distance transfers. Not every community is interested in it or needs it,” Bradshaw said. “Really good and bright people are not aware of how complex EMS care is. The people who are making decisions need to have more information than a count of the person who is just on the horn looking for help.”

Ellsworth would have to work with Mid Coast Hospital and other Hancock County municipalities if it wanted to run a service, Fourtier said.

City Council Chairman Marc Blanchette seemed leery of pursuing the idea. He cautioned that months of deliberations and research must occur before the council can begin to decide whether to partner with a service, and host ambulances at the station, or start its own service.

Fourtier, a former city firefighter, and Deputy Fire Chief Gary Saunders said that firefighters and a private ambulance company could both improve if ambulances are housed at the fire station.

“If we can respond as an emergency response team, trained together, and we all know each other’s equipment, it can only benefit our services,” Saunders said.

Fourtier said he hopes to discuss the city’s ambulance needs at the next council meeting on Aug. 20.

The agenda has not been set, Blanchette said.

Copyright 2018 Bangor Daily News

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