With a soaring number of emergency response calls, Ellsworth is hoping to get the federal government to pay for three new professional firefighter/emergency medical technician positions so it can reliably respond to both fires and emergency medical calls.
The increase in calls is staggering. In 2016, Ellsworth Fire Department responded to 27 medical calls. Last year it responded to 1,251 — an increase of more than 4,500 percent.
“We’re at an extreme need where I need bodies on the floor,” Scott Guillerault, the city’s fire chief, told the elected city council this week. “The call volume has dramatically increased.”
The city is seeking a federal grant for roughly $280,000 a year for three years to hire three additional firefighter/EMTs, according to its fire chief.
The huge jump in medical calls for the department is a result of the requirements of its license from the state to provide emergency medical services.
Ellsworth first obtained the license in 2018, when it discovered that it needed it to continue sending firefighters to assist on ambulance calls. Many of its firefighters also were certified as emergency medical technicians, so it seemed logical to obtain the EMS license.
But in 2020, the department found out the license obligates the city to send its licensed EMTs to all local medical calls to assist, unless they already are at a different call. That’s why its medical call volume has soared.
Citing concerns about potential response times by private ambulance services, the city council later decided to keep its EMS license, so it could continue to respond to medical calls even though it is not allowed to transport patients, which requires a different type of license.
Northern Light Ambulance service is the only medical response agency in Ellsworth that is licensed to transport patients — though Ellsworth officials have said they might look more closely at establishing a city ambulance service, which would allow the city to make revenue through insurance reimbursements.
But even for responding to fire calls, the volume of which have not changed significantly in recent years, Ellsworth is understaffed — as are fire departments throughout the state and the country, Guillerault said.
The department is required to have at least two trained firefighters to go inside a building to fight a fire, and at least two to remain outside, plus another to run the pump on a fire engine, for a total of at least five, Guillerault said. But sometimes the department has only three staff firefighters on duty, which means they have to wait for qualified volunteer firefighters to show up to go inside a burning building.
If more than one fire or emergency medical incident is happening at the same time, it could take several minutes before enough non-staff firefighters show up to help, he said.
“By land mass, we’re the largest city in the state of Maine,” Guillerault said, adding that Ellsworth is 94 square miles. “We’re covering a lot of territory.”
The council voted 7-0 Monday to authorize Guillerault to apply for the FEMA grant to hire staff firefighters. It also authorized him to apply for a separate FEMA program that would reimburse the city for the cost of attracting, training and equipping volunteer firefighters.