ELLSWORTH — At what cost comes safety? A May 3 City Council workshop on the police and fire departments’ budgets for fiscal year 2022 was sidetracked, in part, by a discussion on creating a city-operated emergency medical response service.
This is not a new topic. The city’s Emergency Services Committee floated the idea back in 2018 when County Ambulance, which had served the city and surrounding towns for 45 years, closed its doors, and the topic never really went away. It may well come up again when the Emergency Services Committee meets in council chambers on Thursday, May 6, at 6 p.m.
On Monday, Council Chairman Dale Hamilton suggested a future discussion on using the $400,000 the city will receive this year from the American Rescue Plan Act to purchase and outfit an ambulance for a city-owned EMS unit. That is, if the use is permitted under the terms of the act.
“I think it’s worth us at least exploring the potential use of those funds to set up a system,” Hamilton said. “If we were billing, we could make it cost neutral or even pay for itself, depending how the numbers play out.”
Currently, Northern Light Medical Transport (NLMT) provides ambulance service in Ellsworth.
In November 2018, councilors approved a contract with NLMT that saw two ambulances and crew housed at the Fire Department. NLMT paid the city about $10,000 a year for use of the building. The short-term contract was then extended in 2019 for three more years.
It appeared to be a good deal all around. NLMT had a spot for its transports and crew, and Ellsworth was handed a convenient and inexpensive answer to the hole left by County Ambulance’s closure. All the city had to do was renovate existing space in the Fire Department for NLMT’s use.
But few arrangements are seamless. First, to cover potential liability for firefighters also licensed as emergency medical providers when they assisted NLMT ambulance crews out in the field, the city was licensed as an emergency medical services agency in 2020. Officials then discovered that as a licensed agency, the city was obligated to go to all EMS calls in the city, unless NLMT said the help was not needed.
The city opted to renew its license despite the annual $7,800 expense and use of firefighter resources following concerns about NLMT response times. In one particular incident prior to the city obtaining an EMS license, a woman reportedly bled to death while waiting 40 minutes for an ambulance.
Data obtained by The American in 2020 showed an average response time of 7.35 minutes in Ellsworth between Aug. 31, 2018, and Dec. 10, 2020.
Late in 2020, NLMT informed the city it planned to move its crew into larger quarters, citing pandemic safety and distancing needs. NLMT will be moving into a new garage located at 441 Main St. this spring. NLMT then offered a three-year service agreement with Ellsworth based on a per-capita rate. After months of negotiations, the council is set to vote on the service agreement on May 17, but councilors and City Manager Glenn Moshier are not pleased with it and Councilor Michelle Kaplan requested the Emergency Services Committee meet first.
Council Chairman Hamilton raised the topic of a city emergency service during the budget workshop, after interim Fire Chief Gary Saunders presented the Fire Department’s budget request. Saunders had told councilors that having firefighters respond to nearly every NLMT ambulance call is leaving the department shorthanded.
“We’re frequently finding we don’t have the bodies to provide the coverage we need,” Saunders said.
There is one new firefighter position budgeted to start in January of 2022. Saunders suggested adding one per year for six additional positions. A federal grant program may pay for such employees for the first three years if they are needed for a new service, he noted, a program the department took advantage of in 2012 for three personnel. And, the department will look for firefighters certified in emergency medical response, so they can go on emergency medical calls, he said.
Hamilton pointed to rising costs from the service agreement with NLMT, which will charge the city $56,000 for the first year based on $7 per capita, and the additional personnel needed as incentive to explore a city-run service.