South Thomaston mulls ambulance merger

By George Chappell | Dec 18, 2012
Photo by: George Chappell South Thomaston Selectmen review the latest study on local fire department and ambulance service on Dec. 17. From left is Patrick "Mike" Florance, Robert Branco and Chairman Jeffrey Northgraves.

South Thomaston — The town might have to give up its ambulance service.

That was one option given in a draft report of local public safety services presented to South Thomaston selectmen Dec. 17.

The study showed a need for an organizational analysis of the ambulance service and assessment of the fire department.

Fire safety consultant Neil Courtney of Camden met with selectmen in a workshop to review the draft report on the town's ambulance service and fire department.

"Are we at a crisis?" Courtney asked rhetorically at the meeting. "I don't believe we are."

Courtney is a career firefighter and fire safety training teacher with experience in New Hampshire and Maine. He now works as an independent fire safety consultant. Last winter the town contracted with Courtney for $5,900 to do a study of public safety organization in town following a conflict over costs during annual budget deliberations last February.

"The fire department is reasonably equipped to handle the hazards found throughout the community," Courtney said in the summary of his report.

At the same time, "the town should seek alternatives to the current ambulance service delivery system," Courtney wrote in the same report.

While the fire department has an adequate number of qualified personnel, the ambulance division is trying to keep the service intact and operational with a small staff, the report said.

The ambulance service operates one ambulance that is housed in the municipal building and shares a bay with the fire department's fleet apparatus. The service is permitted to operate up to the paramedic level, although there are no paramedics on the personnel roster.

The service is an on-call department of personnel who respond to incidents when alerted by radio.

Owing to a dwindling availability of personnel, the service instituted a system of hiring emergency medical technicians and ambulance attendants for weekday coverage several years ago. Initially, the per diem program allowed for two people to cover 12 hours each workday. In April 2011, the town reduced it to 11 hours per day.

The list of per diem personnel includes six certified EMTs and one qualified driver.

Meanwhile, Rockland Emergency Medical Services responds to South Thomaston if the local ambulance is unavailable, or to intercept South Thomaston EMS when a higher level of emergency care is required, the report said.

Rockland has at least one paramedic on duty at all times. If one is not available a paramedic from Thomaston may be dispatched.

From Sept. 13, 2008, to Aug. 5, 2012, Rockland EMS responded to South Thomaston 147 times, the report said. The local ambulance service has a line item in its budget for this expense. The 2012 line includes $9,000 in anticipated fees, the 2011 appropriation was $12,950 and the 2010 appropriation was $12,000, the report said.

The actual costs have gone from $3,750 in 2008 to $6,875 in 2009, $11,100 in 2010 and $8,175 in 2011.

Courtney presented three options for emergency medical services in town: phase out the municipally-owned ambulance service; join two or more local EMS services into one agency; keep the local ambulance service in place, but reinforced with more qualified personnel on the on-call roster.

As a recommendation for the first option, Courtney suggested approaching the city of Rockland to contract emergency medical services to South Thomaston.

His recommendation for consolidation with other agencies would be to form a merged system, such as St. George, South Thomaston and Thomaston.

Courtney's recommendation for the third option would be to increase the hours of paid daytime staff.

As part of keeping the service intact, he suggested developing a South Thomaston Ambulance Service website, putting in place a National Fire Protection association "Risk Watch" program and deliver the program to local schools, and increasing recruitment to boost on-call personnel.

To keep the fire department intact, Courtney recommended the following: develop a mission statement with supporting vision statement; consult with town's insurance carrier on extra duties performed by the fire department; strive to earn safety and health award for public employers; rearrange the number of trailers; replace the thermal imaging camera; improve communications between the fire department, the board of selectmen and the budget committee; develop alternative water supplies.

Fire Chief Bryan Calderwood took issue at the meeting with the consultant's statement that "Many of the firefighters are certified in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation."

"All 16 of the firefighters are certified in CPR," Calderwood said.

Selectmen praised Courtney for the report: Robert Branco thanked Courtney for his work; Patrick "Mike" Florance praised the fire department and ambulance for its service to the town; and Chairman Jeffrey Northgraves said he appreciated the effort that Courtney put into the report.

Northgraves said he would like to see a general statement about the problem of employees receiving stipends that are also getting an hourly wage for being on-call.

Last year, a complaint was lodged against the fire department for the chief being paid a stipend for his administrative duties and collecting overtime wages for calls to fires.

"How do we pay our firefighters," Northgraves asked. "Stipend or wages?"

"I know it's an issue," said Courtney.

Northgraves asked for an addendum to the final copy of the report with a general statement about the wage and stipend issue.

Northgraves talked about the 2006 fire department study that developed into a bitter argument in town.

"People said the selectmen were trying to take away our fire department," he said. He said he hopes that this new report will not generate the same kind of antipathy.

"In this day of profligate federal and state laws, you can make a mistake that is very costly for the town," he said.

He said the town might be headed for a town manager form of government because of the emphasis on professionalism.

Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or by email at gchappell@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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