Dozens of firefighters turn out for a Dec. 28, 2018, building fire at the corner of Church and Water streets in downtown Gardiner. The chief is requesting three more firefighter-paramedics in the upcoming budget year. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

As the Gardiner City Council starts its review of the proposed spending plan for the next budget year, it will also consider whether to hire three additional firefighter-paramedics to the city’s fire department and ambulance service.

Because calls for ambulance service are increasing in number as well as time spent on each call, the Gardiner Fire Department is often empty, delaying Gardiner’s response times to fires and ambulance calls.

“Our time when the station is empty is just increasing by the day,” fire Chief Al Nelson said earlier this week when presenting two options to city councilors. “The expectation is that when one of our citizens calls, we come to deal with that problem, no matter what it is.

“We want to meet that expectation,” he added. “Right now, I can’t tell you we’re going to, just because we don’t have the people.”

Gardiner, a city of about 5,700 residents, has a full-time fire department, staffed by firefighters, all of whom have some level of medical training. Most are also paramedics, and a couple are emergency medical technicians, who are training to be paramedics.

The department also runs the Gardiner Ambulance Service, which serves the city and all or part of eight neighboring communities. That territory covers more than 25,000 people and more than 173 square miles.

The ambulance service is run as an enterprise fund, meaning it’s paid for by its revenues, which come from the people it transports and the communities it serves. Its revenue also subsidizes the salaries of Gardiner’s firefighters and chief.

Over the last five years, Nelson said, the department’s calls for service have increased nearly 43% with no change in staffing. While the number of fire calls has remained steady, the number of ambulance calls has increased.

Working with a staffing committee, Nelson developed two options to improve coverage at the fire station for elected officials to consider.

The first would add a deputy chief and two additional firefighter-paramedics who could rotate through the department’s shifts. Its first-year cost is expected to be about $222,000.

The second would add three firefighter-paramedics across the shifts. Its first-year cost is expected to be about $210,000.

In both cases, the ambulance enterprise fund would take on a greater share of the additional salaries over four years, leaving Gardiner residents to pay more initially to support the plan.

The second option has been included in the proposed budget.

At the suggestion of Mayor Patricia Hart, the City Council agreed to take up the proposal as it considers the city’s proposed budget in the coming weeks.

District 1 City Councilor Terry Berry said the staffing issue rests with the ambulance service.

“To me, over the last few years, the mutual aid has improved enormously,” Berry said, referring to the cooperative agreements municipalities use to pool fire protection resources. “I am not convinced that we have a firefighter problem, we have an ambulance problem.

“Whatever the percentage is shouldn’t be shouldered by the citizens of Gardiner, but it should be split by all the citizens using it,” he added.

If Gardiner is using this service at 35%, it should not pay for the majority of the cost in the earlier years.

“Just an observation, right, wrong or indifferent,” Berry said.

Nelson has already brought staffing requests, to be funded initially by SAFER grant, to the City Council twice in recent years.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant is a program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was created to give both professional fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations direct funding to maintain or increase the number of trained firefighters in their communities. Under the grant, the federal funds pay for all or some of the salaries or expenses in the initial years, and the municipality picks up an increasing share until it pays all the costs.

In 2016, a divided council opted not to go forward with the grant application.

Nelson renewed his request in 2019, following a fire at the end of December 2018 that seriously damaged 192 Water St., located just across the municipal parking lot from the fire department. The former bank building housed Domino’s Pizza on the ground floor and offices and small businesses on the second floor and in an adjacent building.

On that night, two firefighters were available to respond to the fire. The other two on shift were out on an ambulance call. In those cases, Gardiner relies on other departments to respond to calls in the city through either automatic or mutual aid calls.

When Nelson brought his request a second time in 2019, elected officials again declined to authorize applying for the SAFER grant. Instead, they opted to create a committee to evaluate the department’s staffing and bring a recommendation to the City Council.

The committee, made up of Nelson; At-large City Councilor Tim Cusick; Tim McLaughlin, chief of the Topsham Fire Department and a West Gardiner resident; Josh Johnson, a lieutenant in the Gardiner Fire Department and representative Local 2303 of the International Association of Fire Fighters; and Kristy Gould and Ken Dumond, both Gardiner residents.

Nelson noted Wednesday that the application period for this year’s SAFER grant has closed. After that council meeting, FEMA announced it has extended the SAFER grant application deadline to May 27.

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