ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Commissioners Tuesday discussed forming a regional ambulance service that would help provide coverage in the greater Ellsworth area, which public safety officials said is lacking.
“I’m hearing a lot of complaints not on the quality but on the availability of ambulance service,” said County Commission Chairman Bill Clark. “The opportunity is here to use ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds for a new regional ambulance service.”
“It really struck home for us when [late Deputy] Luke Gross was struck,” Clark said of the availability of ambulances. “They [Northern Light] said they’d have to bring one from Bangor.”
Gross was struck by a pickup truck while responding to a complaint on Route 3 in Trenton Sept. 23.
Bob Conary, Hancock County Regional Communications Center director, advised that Northern Light eventually did free up an ambulance for the deputy’s accident, but he shares the same concerns as Clark.
Suzanne Spruce, a spokeswoman for Northern Light Health, said Northern Light received the call about Gross’s accident at 5:16 a.m. and was on scene at 5:25. She said the ambulance came from Ellsworth.
Currently the Ellsworth area is served by Northern Light Transport, which staffs two ambulances during the daytime hours and one at night, according to Ed Moreshead, who is associate vice president of emergency medical services for Northern Light. Moreshead was not at the meeting.
However, ambulance services in outlying areas, such as Peninsula Ambulance in Blue Hill, which is supposed to serve the Blue Hill Peninsula area, and Bucksport Ambulance and Cherryfield Ambulance are increasingly getting called in to help when Northern Light doesn’t have a rig available, according to Conary.
“Peninsula has come to Ellsworth 47 times since June 1 because Northern Light was not available,” Conary said. Peninsula was also sent to handle calls for help in the towns of Bar Harbor and Bucksport. Meanwhile, Bucksport has been called into Ellsworth as well.
Bar Harbor Ambulance was sent to calls in Trenton 11 times, Conary said.
“The easiest thing to say is Northern Light has a very large coverage area and they have a hard time filling that,” Conary said.
The Ellsworth area had been served for 45 years by County Ambulance, which was privately owned. The business closed Aug. 31, 2018.
Northern Light eventually took over ambulance service in Ellsworth.
“We’re answering probably about 96 percent of the calls in Hancock County,” Moreshead said. “Staffing is an issue with coverage. It’s at crisis levels.”
Ellsworth Fire Chief Scott Guillerault was invited to the commissioners’ meeting.
“We’re under contract with Northern Light until June of 2023,” Guillerault said. “We’re planning right now to see about continuing on with Northern Light or another contract service. The cost of becoming a transporting service is tremendous.”
“Right now, we can only provide basic life support measures,” Guillerault said of his staff. “If I have to wait for an ambulance, we’re talking about a delay in care for life-threatening injuries or respiratory distress.”
“If we were to look at a regional service in Hancock County, it’s going to take a lot of work for the right person,” Clark said. “I want to lay the groundwork, so you see the need is there.”
Support was a bit mixed.
“You have to have buy-in from the folks who are going to participate,” said Commissioner Paul Paradis. “I don’t think we are the ones to get it going because we need buy-in from the community.”
“Someone has got to get it going,” Clark replied.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Commissioner John Wombacher. “The fire departments have talked for a number of years now about regionalizing. I respect what Paul’s saying, but at some point you’ve got to stick your neck out there.”
Guillerault, who worked in the southern part of the U.S. before moving to Maine, said he has been part of several county EMS-based systems.
“I’ve seen how the county systems work,” Guillerault said. “The city of Gardiner runs Gardiner Area Ambulance. There are models out there.”
“Something does need to happen whether there’s a private service or a county-based system,” the fire chief said. “There are days my guys are waiting for Gouldsboro to show up, Bucksport to show up. You’re 2 miles from the hospital waiting for Bucksport Ambulance to get there.” Is that providing fair service? the chief asked.
Unorganized Territories Supervisor Millard Billings, who is also code enforcement officer for the town of Franklin, said Franklin has paid a fee for years to County Ambulance and now Northern Light “but the level of service is nowhere near the same.”
“I think we forget,” Billings said. “We’re used to living in New England and each town goes their own way. But for most of the nation, this works at the county level.”
Bar Harbor Fire Chief Matt Bartlett, who attended the meeting virtually said the issue is staffing.
“I think one of the biggest issues and why we’re in this dilemma is staffing,” Bartlett said. “That affects our ability to even respond to mutual aid. This is a huge problem everywhere. The future is not looking great moving forward as far as recruitment and retention.”
Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard also attended the meeting virtually. Bucksport provides emergency medical services to the towns of Orland and Verona Island.
“I guess what I would offer because we’re doing it successfully, I would offer my public safety to participate in a group,” Lessard said. “The more people that can shoulder the load, the easier it is for us to cover the area we’re already in.”
“We’re challenged staffing-wise, as Chief Bartlett has indicated in covering an increasing number of calls,” Lessard said. “Our call volume has increased 30 percent over the past two years. We’re an aging state and our community is an aging population. We’re also challenged with distance. We’re 20 miles from any [hospital] facility, which adds time to response.”
The commissioners, along with Conary and Guillerault, agreed to form a working committee, which will include Clark, to study the feasibility of a regional service.
There are smaller ambulance services in pockets of Hancock County.
Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor started Schoodic EMS shortly after County Ambulance folded, Conary said. “They just started taking on Sorrento calls.”
Sullivan Fire and Rescue started its own secondary backup for Northern Light.
Mount Desert Island has three ambulance services in Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Mount Desert.
Meanwhile, Memorial Ambulance serves Deer Isle-Stonington.