ROCKLAND — Rockland’s fire chief is warning that the stalled effort to consolidate emergency services is a threat to continued services.

Rockland Fire Chief Christopher Whytock said a political dispute between Camden and Rockport stalled the momentum generated for the collaboration between departments. Camden filed a lawsuit against Rockport June 21, claiming Rockport failed to pay what it owes for sewer fees.

In early 2019, talks began between Camden, Rockport, and Rockland about creating a regional emergency medical service for this region of Knox County. That later turned to talks about regionalizing fire and emergency medical services.

Camden and Rockport have shared a police chief since 2016. The sharing agreement runs through June 30, 2023.

Chief Whytock said talks on fire and EMS regionalization have stopped, and politics got in the way when Camden sued Rockport.

At the start, Whytock said, officials were talking about a consolidated service as a five to 10 year plan. It now needs to be two to four years.

“If we don’t start now (for a regional service) we will be in a big world of hurt,” he said.

Chief Whytock acknowledged he was frustrated with the stalling of the effort to regionalize the service. For so long, he said, the towns in Knox County have done well on the backs of dedicated volunteers. However, the volunteer force is now half or less what it was a few years ago, he said. In Rockland, for example, there were about 30 members of the volunteer call division in 1999. That is now down to five.

The requirements for volunteers have also increased. A certified firefighter must take 250 hours of classes. A basic paramedic must take a minimum of nine months of classes totaling more than 1,500 hours at a cost of $13,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic further harmed recruitment, he said. Then there are the studies that show the high cancer risk for firefighters and the mental health burden on emergency responders.

That is why, he maintained, regionalization is the key to providing services in the future.

“The time will come when we can’t respond to a call or it will take too long,” Whytock said.

Whytock said he has already heard criticism from patients about the length of time it takes when Rockland responds to a call in Camden when no other responder is available due to multiple calls.

The chiefs and EMS directors had developed a plan. The plan would allow the regional emergency service authority to shift employees and equipment as needed. A regional authority would also be better able to recruit personnel, he said.

Camden Town Manager Audra Caler said Wednesday, Aug. 24 she was not aware of the regionalization effort being stalled over the sewer dispute. She has been on maternity leave this summer.

Rockport Town Manager Jonathan Duke said Aug. 24 he has not heard anything on the regionalization matter since early this summer. He pointed out Caler has been on maternity leave and there were “a number of reasons why we haven’t met since late last spring.”

“All three towns recognize the challenge our region is facing in terms of the fire service, but applying the right model and then funding it will not be easy. I’m thankful our fire chiefs remain in contact frequently,” Duke said.

The chiefs last met about three months ago.

The Select Boards have not met in a joint session on regionalization of fire and ems.

Camden filed the lawsuit over sewer fees on June 21. Rockport has responded and filed a counterclaim asking the court to prohibit Camden from shutting off Rockport’s access to Camden’s sewer treatment plant.

On Aug. 16, Justice Bruce Mallonee directed the parties to participate in the alternate dispute resolution process to try to settle the matter without further court hearings. No date for a hearing with a mediator has yet been scheduled, according to court records.

The June 2022 lawsuit by Camden follows a March 2021 settlement in which Camden agreed to repay Rockport $750,000 for improper billing by the school district over the past decade which had not assessed enough to Camden and too much to Rockport. That settlement came after Rockport had filed a lawsuit in August 2020 to recoup the money.