SWH town manager sounds alarm over staffing of ambulance service

SOMESVILLE, Nov. 19, 2020 – Bar Harbor is the only municipality on MDI with a full-time 24/7 professional ambulance service instead of volunteers mixed in with per diem workers such as that serving the communities of Tremont, Southwest Harbor and Mount Desert. The latter is now being questioned as whether it should be the model going forward.

This was the topic of a recent meeting of MDI town managers, so reported Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen to his selectmen board Tuesday night.

“I think something needs to be said to really push the Tremont/Southwest Harbor Ambulance Service into making a change and making sure that they’re going to be here in a year, in five years or ten years or come up with a plan if they don’t plan to be,” VanDongen said.

That was followed up by selectmen chair Kristin Hutchins who said, “We just can’t find people to do the work.

“Until this spring we had adequate staff … we’ve lost three of our per diem paramedics. November is particularly difficult because some people have gone hunting.”

Multiple times this year there was no ambulance staffing and the Quietside went uncovered, VanDongen said.

The situation in Mount Desert is not as dire because the ambulance service has opted to pay for an extra backup in case the pandemic wreaked havoc with the scheduled shifts. But it too is looking al all options, said ambulance service chief Basil Mahaney, including adopting a Bar Harbor model someday or consolidating with Southwest Harbor and Tremont.

Mahaney pointed out that Bar Harbor has more than three times the call volume than that of Mount Desert. Mahaney, who is a paramedic in Bar Harbor, said it has about 1,000 calls a year compared to 300 for Mount Desert. The volume also means Bar Harbor has a richer revenue source for ambulance payments from users and insurance reimbursement to support a professional staff.

Paramedics from MDI ambulance services with new heart monitors in 2017. From left, Margaret Houghton of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service, David Buccello of the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Ambulance Service and Basil Mahaney of the Bar Harbor Fire Department. MDI Islander photo

Mount Desert has had a separate volunteer ambulance service since 1938, a non-profit which is supported mostly by donors. It receives only about $10,000 a year in support from the town plus use of facilities to house the ambulances.

Southwest Harbor and Tremont also has a non-profit service but it gets $72,000 a year from SWH and $50,000 from Tremont which make up about half its revenue.

“What do we need to make sure that the ambulance service is going to be successful in the future? And we need to know the realities of it, VanDongen said. “It just can’t be the general request for money again this year. We really need to take a look at what the investment this community needs to make to provide ambulance service to its residents.

“I think there is frustrations on a lot of fronts as far as staffing, funding, billing,” he continued. There needs to be some changes … “

Hutchins added, “I’m extremely concerned about it … I think it’s appropriate to turn up the heat a bit. If we’re not pushing, I don’t think it’s going to get solved.”

Leave a Reply