Gardiner Fire Chief Richard Sieberg stands recently with the Rescue 2 ambulance at the town’s fire station. Sieberg is expected to present options for improving service to communities in the Gardiner Ambulance coverage area. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — Following the success of a pilot project staging a Gardiner ambulance and crew in the Richmond Fire Department during weekends from July to October, Gardiner’s fire chief is proposing options to expand the ambulance service.

The move could shorten response times and improve service across the Gardiner Ambulance coverage area, but would also require adding staff members and increasing costs.

On Wednesday, Gardiner Fire Chief Richard Sieberg is expected to present his idea to the Gardiner City Council for review at its meeting. Because of how oversight of the ambulance service is structured, Sieberg must also win support from the other seven communities it serves, and secure funding in their municipal budgets to make it work.

“We’re not picking up communities, so we’re not picking up call volume,” he said. “We’re just able to handle our call volume more appropriately.”

In all, there are four options:

• Permanently staffing a third ambulance in Richmond, adding eight new positions.

• Staffing a fly car — an emergency response vehicle with advanced life-support capabilities but no transport capability — with a single firefighter/paramedic in Richmond, adding four new positions.

• Staffing a fly car in Gardiner, adding four new positions.

• Make no changes to staffing.

Sieberg said he did not think the fourth option was a viable possibility.

This year alone, the emergency medical service calls are on pace to surpass 3,200.

“More people just seem to need help,” he said.

Some of that can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the ambulance service now called out daily to serve people with the coronavirus. Sieberg said many people appear to have lost the ability to cope.

WORKING REGIONALLY 

At a workshop Sieberg held earlier this month for Gardiner city officials and the ambulance service’s advisory board members from the eight communities it serves, staffing the third ambulance seemed to have the most support.

The Gardiner Ambulance Service, based in Gardiner, serves more than 25,000 people across Gardiner, Farmingdale, Litchfield, Pittston, Randolph, Richmond, West Gardiner and half of Chelsea, an area that totals 173 square miles.

The annual cost to run the Gardiner Ambulance Service, which as an enterprise fund is supported by user fees, is about $1.5 million. The estimated revenue is about $1.28 million, leaving a gap of about $242,000.

That gap is the amount paid by all the member communities, including Gardiner. Half that amount is billed as a per capita fee. The other half is calculated based on usage.

Typically, the ambulance service pays for half the salary and benefits of the Gardiner fire chief, and about two-thirds of the wages and benefits for Gardiner’s 16 firefighter/paramedics. Gardiner pays the difference.

Under Sieberg’s first proposal, the ambulance service would pay two-thirds of the cost of the additional staff, and Richmond would pay the difference. The total additional cost would be nearly $319,000, in addition to what they pay now.

The proposed cost of the second and third options would be the same, adding nearly $170,000.

The pilot project costs about $53,000 in overtime. Because of the timing of Sieberg’s proposal in May, the budgets for most of the ambulance service’s member towns had already been approved, with no funding identified to contribute at that time.

As it was nearing the end of its own budget deliberations, the Gardiner City Council opted to approve paying for overtime to staff two firefighter/paramedics in Richmond for the duration of the pilot program.

During that time, 72 calls were answered over 32 shifts. Sieberg said having a third ambulance in staff resulted in five lives being saved.

For Richmond’s fire chief, the pilot program was a success.

“For us, it was difficult to get people to come out on calls during the weekends in summer,” Chief John Bellino said. “So them being here filled a gap as far as people in town available for calls.”

For Richmond, which as a volunteer Fire Department, response times were faster for both medical and fire calls with staff at the fire station, Bellino said.

While one of Richmond’s selectmen attended the workshop, the proposal has not yet been presented to the Board of Selectmen.

HISTORIC ORIGINS 

The rescue service in Gardiner dates back nearly five decades, having begun in 1973 when the city bought its first rescue truck.

Sieberg said not long before, a crash on Route 201 killed two girls and firefighters were frustrated they could not do more. They did not have the equipment or the skills.

Gardiner’s first rescue truck was equipped with extrication equipment, including chains, come-alongs and portable power. It also had the ability to transport patients, using a military cot suspended in the back.

At that time, Sieberg said, paramedics and emergency medical technicians did not exist like they do today. Firefighters were training with physicians and nurses at the hospitals in Gardiner and Augusta to be able to do basic emergency care, some working their way up to critical care.

“They could do IVs, they could do oxygen, they could do morphine — some advanced stuff that no one was doing in the area,” he said. “Gardiner was the only one doing that.”

Annual reports for the city of Gardiner detail the growth in the rescue service, noting that in November 1975, the Fire Department began the delivery of ambulance service to Gardiner and, by contract, to residents in Richmond, Dresden, Pittston, Randolph, Farmingdale, West Gardiner and parts of Chelsea and Whitefield.

At about the same time, Northeastern University in Boston was among the institutions earning national accreditation to offer paramedic programs. Sieberg said two 1981 graduates from Gardiner — Bill Cusick and Ted Hunt — were the first two paramedics in Maine.

In the decades since the ambulance service launched, many circumstances in the region have changed, Sieberg said.

Among them, the relocation of the hospital in Augusta from a downtown-adjacent location to the current MaineGeneral Medical Center campus at Augusta’s north end, which is farther away. At the same time, specialty care offered by trauma centers means longer transport and return times. And because of the growth in call volume, the Gardiner Fire Station was empty 600 times last year.

This is not the first time the issue of expanding the Fire Department staff has been raised in Gardiner. Al Nelson, who was fire chief before Sieberg, brought proposals for additional staffing, most recently in 2020.

“Everybody’s got to be willing to play ball to make it happen,” Nelson said, noting members of the ambulance advisory board saw the need for this.

“If we can get everybody on board, then the real hard part comes in finding the people,” he said. “It could take a couple of years (to fill the positions).”

And if that is the case, the communities would be billed for the actual costs of those hired.

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