WATERVILLE — Fire Chief Shawn Esler is recommending the city spend $10,000 in the 2020-21 municipal budget for a medical director position to be filled by a physician who has been doing the job, part-time, for $12 an hour.

Coronavirus pandemic death toll numbers are shown behind Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler on March 23. Esler outlined the need for a medical director for the department at a cost of $10,000 per year at a council meeting Tuesday. Morning Sentinel file photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Tim Pieh is on the fire department’s call force and has been functioning as a medical director the last couple of years, doing training and providing medical direction, advice and oversight of the department’s emergency medical services, according to Esler.

“Since January, his position has morphed from an oversight of the EMS program into medical consultant for the city of Waterville,” Esler said Wednesday.

Esler said he recommended to City Manager Michael Roy that, instead of being paid $12 an hour for being on-call, Pieh be paid the $10,000 through a contract and that he be named the medical director. During the coronavirus pandemic, Pieh’s services have been invaluable and he has been doing more work than what he is paid for, according to Esler.

“He’s turned into a medical consultant for the city of Waterville, and I’d use him for that and for the city EMS program …” he said.

Esler explained his recommendation to the City Council at a budget workshop Tuesday night which was supposed to have been live-streamed via a link on the city’s website. Because of a technical issue, those who tried to watch the meeting via that link were not able to do so.

However, city officials said the meeting was held via YouTube, with councilors, the mayor, city manager and others attending remotely, though the press and public were not advised of the change in link. The public was able to see the meeting Wednesday via the link, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERuPFvLpVnA.

“We’re sorry that the link failed,” Roy said Wednesday. “People can view it online now, and we’re going to do our best going forward to make sure it is online for the public.”

Meanwhile, Roy said at Tuesday’s budget workshop that Pieh’s position with the fire department is a critical one.

“We don’t have anything better to prove that than what we have been through the last four weeks,” he said.

Mayor Nick Isgro asked Esler if there are any other new positions proposed in the 2020-21 budget for the fire department.

“No, there are not, other than the medical director. That would be considered a new part-time position,” Esler replied.

Esler said other fire departments in the state employ medical directors, which is important for delivering high quality care. He said Pieh has gone on rescue calls to oversee care and has done that and training “on an almost volunteer basis at this time. I would see extreme benefits from this.”

The proposed fire department budget for 2020-21 is $2.39 million, which represents a 6.42%, or a $144,367 increase over the current budget, but most of that increase is reflected in negotiated salary increases and benefits. About $15,000 of the proposed increase actually is not an increase, but the result of a clerical error.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the fire department has needed to add the equivalent of another full-time position in overtime hours that are being filled by firefighters. Esler said that nearly a third of the department’s call firefighter force disappeared when Colby College students left the city because of the pandemic. The city employs several Colby students who are firefighters and most are EMTs, he said. The call force now numbers about 24 firefighters, but the department tries to maintain 30, according to Esler.

“It’s anticipated that funding for the additional OT is going to be reimbursed 75% by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency),” Esler said.

The fire department has 15 full-time firefighters. Over a 10-year span, from 1993 to 2003, the department lost seven firefighters as a result of cost-saving measures.

Esler told councilors Tuesday night that when he has had independent conversations with councilors, Roy and Isgro, they talked about having a discussion about fire department staffing. Esler said Roy assured him that his (Esler’s) job is to determine the needs of the department and present that to the council, with the council determining whether to fund more staff.

Esler said he put together a brief memo outlining potential staffing costs or options to add staff.

“At the end of the day, my agency is getting busier,” he said. “We can’t debate that whatsoever, and every day that we move forward, we somehow gain another responsibility, and I’m not complaining at all because that’s our job. Our job is public safety.”

Esler said calls to the department are increasing, building inspections are increasing and the department is spending more time on increased fire code violations, fire suppression and prevention and emergency medical service needs. Even one additional position would be a significant help, according to Esler.

The fire department has purchased one used ambulance and expects to buy another one to be used as a backup for when Delta Ambulance is significantly delayed on a call. Councilors on Tuesday discussed reconvening the city’s Fire Department Study Committee as a forum to discuss whether the department could generate more revenue by operating a primary ambulance service rather than just a backup service. They said the money such a service would generate would fund additional firefighter positions.

That committee met with Esler last year and recommended the city have its own ambulance service, prompting discussion about the issue and ultimately a council vote to approve the department’s having a backup service.

When councilors Tuesday started asking Esler for details about how much money certain numbers of ambulance calls would generate, Mayor Nick Isgro said, “I think we’re delving into a totally separate discussion beyond what we’re here for tonight.”

Late last year, Isgro vetoed a council vote to authorize the fire department to buy two used ambulances. The council later overrode that veto.

Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, who earlier in the meeting said he thought the Fire Department Study Committee should be re-convened, reiterated that stance.

“The real fact of the matter is, we’re not going to (consider) the three career firefighters or the six career firefighters unless we decide we’re going to try to generate revenue off the fire EMS program,” Thomas said. “We need to have that discussion and probably at the committee level before we do it at a budget meeting.”

Esler said Wednesday that the city’s ambulance is fully licensed and capable of transporting patients in a backup capacity, but the department has not yet done so.

Roy said Wednesday that the fire department is the third largest city department after police and public works.

Esler, meanwhile, said firefighters are very dedicated to the job and when the pandemic hit, no one wanted to stay at home.

“They wanted to roll up their sleeves and go to work,” he said. “That’s extremely telling for the character of our responders.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.