Ambulance calls up; city weighs options



ELLSWORTH — At a meeting of the Emergency Medical Services Committee Tuesday, members considered the possibility of housing two ambulances in the Ellsworth Fire Department to deal with a dramatically increased call volume.

The proposed public-private partnership calls for two fully staffed ambulances housed in the Fire Department for up to three years, at which point the arrangement would be evaluated.

“We’re looking at trying to get a cohesive team together and treat it as a public service,” said committee member and City Councilor Gary Fortier.

The five members of the committee, which includes representatives from the police and fire departments as well as City Council, voted unanimously to send a request for proposals to City Manager David Cole.

Fortier said the committee did not yet know what the costs of such a partnership would be and who would pay them.

Fortier said in an interview after the meeting that this would not put the city into competition with private companies.

“All we’re going to do is co-locate their equipment with our equipment,” Fortier said. “They’re still going to run their own business. It just creates an opportunity to train together and be a cohesive group.”

County Ambulance is the only licensed ambulance service in Ellsworth, said Fortier, but he added that there may be others interested in the partnership.

If the contract were to go to another provider, said Fortier, whether or not to stay “would be a business decision for the owners of County,” although, he added “I don’t think there’s room enough for two ambulance services to provide” services.

Other municipalities have implemented similar partnerships over the years. Brewer entered into a public-private partnership in 1999 with Capital Ambulance Service, owned by Meridian Mobile Health, which is in turn affiliated with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. Levant has also experimented with the idea.

The city could see a share of the earnings, Fortier said.

“Maybe, depends on what their proposals say. They may propose to cover fire service. That’s kind of why the request for proposals is so open-ended. Tell us what you can give us.”

Deputy Fire Chief Gary Saunders said the chosen company would be able to respond to calls regionally, but “Ellsworth would be the dedicated coverage area.”

The provider selected would be required to have at least one unit ready to serve the city 24 hours a day.

Saunders said fitting the ambulances in the Fire Department would be tight, but could be done. The fitness room would likely be renovated and turned into sleeping quarters under the arrangement, an undertaking that would be paid for by the chosen company and cost under $8,000, according to the draft request.

Another important aspect of the plan, Saunders said, would be to have firefighters trained at least to the basic level of emergency medical technicians. Most of those he’s spoken to are open to the idea, Saunders said, adding that firefighters not trained in emergency response cannot be dispatched with an ambulance for liability reasons.

The committee also discussed adding a dispatch console in the Police Department to handle the anticipated call increase that would come with having ambulances in the Fire Department.

Police Chief Glenn Moshier said he supported the idea but worried that it would be difficult to have two dispatchers trying to communicate effectively in the confined space.

Moshier recommended a console with limited radio capability, which he said would help keep costs down but provide the support necessary. The limited console would cost around $3,000, Moshier said.

“Basically it’s like a souped-up telephone,” he said. A full console, Moshier said, would cost anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000.

The majority of 911 calls would continue first be sent to the Hancock County Regional Communications Center (RCC), a taxpayer-funded agency, as they are now.

Depending on the type of call, a dispatcher may transfer the call to a particular agency, such as the Ellsworth Police Department, send the call to another communications center, such as Bangor-based Medcomm, or stay on the phone to offer advice to the caller until an ambulance arrives.

“Overall call volume is up 25 percent,” said Robert Conary, director of the RCC, who attended the meeting. “Every year it’s been a steady increase.”

Residents “aging in place” and overdoses have accounted for some of the increase, said Conary, but he pointed to “lift assists and falls” as the main drivers.

Fortier said the proposal aligns with what most residents expect of an emergency services team.

“The majority of people,” said Fortier, “when they call for an ambulance they think it’s the Fire Department coming to save them, because that’s the model all over the nation.

“We have this opportunity while we’re getting ready to look at designing a public safety building.”

While the building, if it happens, may be years away, the city needs a solution to the increased ambulance call volume sooner than that, Fortier said.

The draft request will go to City Manager David Cole and the city’s legal team for review and will likely be presented at the City Council meeting on Aug. 20. If it is approved by the council, the request will be made public and companies will be able to submit proposals.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]