ELLSWORTH — The Fire Department will continue to respond to all emergency medical calls in the city, per the requirements of its emergency medical services (EMS) agency license, but councilors aren’t all sold on whether to continue the practice going forward.
“You come up with $7,800,” said Councilor John Phillips at a meeting on Monday evening, referring to an estimate that Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper presented as the annual additional cost of providing basic emergency services.
“But I feel that probably that’s pretty darn light … With you in here every year asking for more staff and more staff that you’re going to be able to start responding to this stuff and do it responsibly and cover everything with your current staff.”
The city became licensed as an EMS agency to solve a problem: it had firefighters licensed to help on medical calls who couldn’t because of liability issues.
If the city relinquishes the licenses, said Tupper, “We have licensed individuals, and that would put that individual in a position of duty to act because he carries that license, and when he’s on an accident scene and somebody’s there that needs help we would be then telling him you need to stand back and do nothing.”
Chairman Dale Hamilton read a letter from Mariah Curtis, who wrote that her grandmother, Nancy Davis, “bled to death for 40 minutes from a small varicose vein while waiting for an ambulance at 16 Wood St. This was before the perfectly capable Fire Department was being dispatched to medical calls as licensed first responders.”
“If you choose to stop having a fire department respond to calls within the city, this will happen again and it could be one of your family members … Had the Fire Department been licensed, then she would be alive after their lifesaving interventions. They are licensed, they have the equipment, they are capable, they will save lives.”
Tupper said that while he doesn’t have extensive historical data to estimate what it would cost for the department to continue to respond, he estimates it would add $7,800 to the department’s annual budget, between overtime, equipment, fuel costs and supplies.
That does not include the cost of an additional dispatcher who might be needed if call volume increases.
“For $7,800, when seconds matter, something like that would’ve made a big difference,” said Councilor Michele Kaplan.
But Councilor Robert Miller agreed with Phillips and said he’s skeptical that’s all it would cost.
“I still think there are extra costs that will come,” he said, although he added that reading studies from other cities, Ellsworth’s partnership in combination with Northern Light Medical Transport is “the most cost-effective and safest way.”
Phillips clarified on Monday that the Fire Department is not going on medical calls because its staff asked to go. Before it became a licensed EMS agency, firefighters who were licensed accompanied Northern Light when Northern Light requested it. Now that the city holds a license, that obligates firefighters to respond.
The city does not bill for ambulance services, which it could do in the future. But as Chairman Dale Hamilton noted, becoming a full-scale provider of ambulance services would be taking on “a whole different level of staffing, recruitment … it would be a very expensive proposition and transport alone doesn’t necessarily cover the cost.”
Kaplan said billing for an average basic level transport is between $600 and $1,000. The roughly 1,500 transports the city does could bring in revenue, she said.
Tupper said that while it could bring in revenue, there are other complications, which include needing to add someone to handle billing and insurance. Plus, not all transport calls wind up getting reimbursed.
Hamilton added that if the city were to get into the transport business it would take away “a significant part of the market” for Northern Light. If that revenue stream disappears for them, he said, “We could jeopardize that stability,” and the city likely could not afford to have its own ambulances, he said.
Hamilton said he thinks having some training “at a small cost makes some sense in terms of serving the community,” but that the city should take small steps.
“I would hope we proceed carefully with it,” he said.