BUCKSPORT, Maine — Town councilors voted Thursday to approve new scheduling procedures and pay raises for its ambulance service staff, but reduced the number of first responders required on each call from three to two — despite an impassioned plea from a former EMT.
Previously, emergency workers were not paid to be on call, instead receiving compensation only for time spent in action on the job. Under the new rules, EMTs will be paid $3 per hour while on call, plus an increased wage for time spent out on a call.
To cover the extra payroll expenses, staffing requirements dropped from a driver and two attendants to a driver and one attendant. Fire and EMS Chief Craig Bowden said a third EMT would still be available on calls where it was necessary, but a log will have to be kept outlining when and why the extra set of hands was called in.
Diane Barlow, a former Bucksport EMT, spoke out against the reduced staffing. She dramatically outlined all the responsibilities of an intermediate level EMT, from lifting the patient, talking with their family, staying in touch with the hospital, administering an IV, intubation and more.
One attendant can’t handle all that work, she said, especially because many ambulance procedures require two people.
“There needs to be three people on every call,” she said. “A driver cannot do anything unless they’re licensed. If you need traction on a splint,or to maintain an airway or get an IV started, they can’t do those things. They’re not allowed to.”
Councilor Michael Ormsby reiterated that a third EMT would be available for calls deemed serious by the dispatcher or the EMT on call.
“Nobody is telling them they can’t take a third person if they need it,” he said. “All they need to do is explain it at the end of a run sheet. The only [calls] that eliminate it are ones that don’t need it.”
Barlow and another resident, Donna Bissonette-McCann, said waiting to call in a third person is dangerous because the nature of a medical problem could change between the time the 911 call is made and the time the ambulance arrives. It would take crucial minutes for a third EMT to arrive, they said.
Chief Bowden said it was true that there could be a delay in getting another EMT at a scene, but said it hasn’t been a problem for the past two months, when the department has been testing the new ordinance.
“This summer we have worked with these policies, and they’ve worked well,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had any major delays waiting for a third attendant; the dispatcher knows what to do.”
Bucksport has 24 workers on the EMS payroll, including four full-time employees. The new $3-per-hour “pager pay” was designed to address a lack of availability from on-call EMTs and paramedics.
Bowden said many of those workers opted to take per-diem work in other ambulance corps and calls sometimes went unanswered, leading to high overtime costs for the town’s four full-time responders. Since the changes were enacted, he said, the $3 pager pay has enticed enough employees to keep the schedule full.
The Town Council also approved spending $5,330 on back pay for ambulance service staff for time worked between July 1 and Aug. 30. The back pay will cover the difference between old pay levels and new ones.
Bowden claimed he was told to institute the changes as soon as possible. Several councilors were upset that he had done so before they were approved by the council.
Councilor David Kee said he couldn’t figure out why Bowden thought he could approve new pay arrangements before the council did, but despite serious reservations about the breach of process, he said he was happy the policies were tested and that they’re working.
“I believe the staff was misdirected, for whatever reason, and I think they acted in misplaced but good faith,” he said. “Good things happened because of that, and so I vote for the retroactive pay.”
The back pay was approved 3-2, with councilors Michael Ormsby and Robert Howard against the resolve. Councilors Byron Vinton III and Joel Wardwell were absent.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine