GARDINER — With a proposal to staff a third ambulance for weekends this summer and fall, Gardiner’s fire chief is hoping to improve service and response time for the Gardiner Ambulance Service.

The pilot program would require about $56,000 worth of overtime in the fire department’s proposed budget to station two firefighter-paramedics and an ambulance at the Richmond Fire Department from the Fourth of July holiday weekend through mid-October.

But it also comes at a time when the Gardiner City Council has asked city department heads for cuts to the city’s proposed $6.6 million spending plan in the face of expected tax increases in both the Maine School Administrative District 11 and Kennebec County government spending plans.

While Gardiner Ambulance Service has three ambulances, it staffs two regularly. With calls for service topping 3,000 a year across its region of about 175 square miles, the program is expected to be one way to improve response times to both medical emergencies and fires across the seven and a half communities it serves.

“The idea is that Richmond is a long ways from here,” Gardiner Fire Chief Rick Sieberg said. “If we can staff our third ambulance in our southern coverage area, we’d get better response.”

An ambulance transport to either Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick or Maine Medical Center in Portland can take more than three hours and leave one ambulance and two firefighter-paramedics to respond to fires or medical emergencies.

Gardiner fire officials have been working to expand staffing to cover the increasing number of calls the city’s fire department and ambulance service receives. Al Nelson, Sieberg’s predecessor, unsuccessfully sought both grants and city funding to expand the number of firefighter-paramedics over the course of several years.

Sieberg is trying a different approach. Last winter, he stationed Gardiner’s third ambulance at the Richmond Fire Department with a crew of two during every winter storm, with the agreement of Richmond Fire Chief John Bellino. With that arrangement, the ambulance was able to handle a serious medical call in Richmond and a fire, which Gardiner Fire and Rescue wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Richmond and Gardiner have already forged a partnership over delivering emergency care. Under the sponsorship of Gardiner Ambulance, members of the Richmond Fire Department have undertaken training to be first responders to be able to render more than basic first aid at the scene of fires or accidents.

In 2017, when the training was first announced, Richmond was the only municipality in Sagadahoc County without some sort of first responder service. At that time, Bellino was the deputy chief and he was the department’s only paramedic.

Bellino supports this proposal because it will greatly improve the service Richmond receives.

“That ambulance crew provides more than just ambulance service; they’re firefighters also,” he said. “That’s a big benefit for Richmond to be able have two people in the station for 24 hours over the period of a weekend. They can help with fire suppression as well as the EMS delivery.”

Bellino said he plans to talk with the Richmond Board of Selectmen at a workshop in June about several items, including the Gardiner Ambulance Service’s pilot project, as well as proposals for funding an on-call firefighter-EMT and facility improvements.

“It’s an atypical sort of arrangement,” he said. “That may present some curiosity. It’s a fairly unique endeavor.”

But it’s not unprecedented; Bellino said he’s found a similar program in Lincoln, which collaborated with Millinocket.

“It’s a little unorthodox and we both kind of like that,” he said. “Myself and the Gardiner chief are both looking at some unorthodox things as a different way to approach things rather than just going with the cookie-cutter (approach) that’s common to most fire departments.”

The Gardiner Ambulance Service is an enterprise fund, which generally means the service is supported by user fees. Each of the communities served by Gardiner Ambulance pays a fee for the service and covers the cost of ambulance bills that are uncollected, including Gardiner. Revenue to the Gardiner Ambulance enterprise fund, about $1.5 million, subsidizes salaries for both Gardiner’s firefighters and chief.

Because of the timing of the proposal, the overtime costs were not factored into the fees the other municipalities pay. But, Sieberg said, he has brought the proposal to the Gardiner Ambulance’s advisory committee, made up of officials from the towns in the service area, and the members were in favor of it.

“I would want to start this in July,” he said. “That’s why I need Gardiner to start the process. I can’t go back to the communities that already have their budgets.”

Sieberg said he’s not trying to build an empire.

“My hope is to start talking to all the communities that we provide service for and see if there’s interest in continuing this in a more permanent way,” he said, “whether it’s finding funding for two more people for Monday through Friday or some kind of swing shift. Something is better than nothing.”

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