Gardiner firefighter/paramedic Cody Hickey, left, and Lt. Justin Lodolce wheel a patient to an ambulance Tuesday in Randolph. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Faced with an increasing number of calls for service and limits on staffing, emergency medical providers across central Maine say they are facing a crisis and they need help.

“Everybody is in crisis,” Augusta Fire Chief Dave Groder said Tuesday.

“Everybody” includes municipal ambulance or rescue services like those offered in Augusta, Gardiner and Winthrop and privately-owned ambulance companies that serve communities across the region.

“We are on a path to do upwards of 8,000 calls, which is well above our regular calls by 1,000 runs,” Groder said between fire and ambulance calls. “To say that our crew is exhausted and worked beyond their capacity — my crew has been awesome at digging down deep and working as much as they can.”

On Monday, the Maine Board of Emergency Services sent out two resolutions it recently approved, one stating that the emergency medical service in Maine is in a staffing crisis, and another supporting proposed state legislation that would recognize EMS an essential service in Maine at the county level.

Sean Goodwin, director of the Kennebec County Emergency Management Agency, updated the county commissioners at their meeting Tuesday. “EMS is in crisis. Everybody is hurting,” Goodwin said.

In Gardiner, where calls for service are on a pace to top 3,200, fire Chief Rick Sieberg said that when there’s a decrease in staffing the system falters.

“What’s happening around here is a lack of trucks on the road,” Sieberg said.

Augusta and Gardiner have labor contracts that keep their rescue trucks on the road every day, he said. But services that are staffed by per diem EMTs, who are paid by the day, cannot require staff to work. Many of those per diem EMTs are full-time paramedics for cities like Augusta, and if they are being called into work shifts under their contract, they are not available to fill per diem shifts at other municipal services or for private ambulance companies.

Gardiner firefighter/paramedic Lt. Justin Lodolce unplugs an ambulance Tuesday while leaving the station to respond to a rescue call in Randolph. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

On Tuesday, he said, his department got a call to respond to Litchfield, but his trucks were tied up. So they called United Ambulance Service, which could not respond, so the call went to Lisbon.

“It’s not just this area; it’s like this all over,” he said.

On Tuesday, Groder hosted a meeting of area EMS directors to work out a plan to help dispatchers understand which service can get a crew to a call as soon as possible.

Recently, Augusta was called to respond to the south end of Whitefield and to Monmouth for ambulance calls because other services weren’t available. In both those cases, Groder said, Gardiner was the closer service to respond to.

“All these short-staffed ambulance services are not my problem,” Groder said. “But it is the burden on me to cover for them.”

The state has mandated vaccines in the health care sector, including emergency medical staff. While some EMTs have left their jobs or been fired over their desire not to be vaccinated — including four in Augusta — that’s not driving the crisis, he said.

Gardiner firefighter/paramedic Cody Hickey places a mask over his face Tuesday in an ambulance leaving the Gardiner station to respond to a rescue call in Randolph. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Groder said Augusta is risking losing firefighters and emergency medical technicians to communities that can pay more and offer a lower volume of calls.  And with fewer and fewer people interested in completing EMT training, the next generation of emergency medical staff doesn’t exist.

“While we need to recruit people to do the job, there’s nobody there to recruit,” Groder said. “So we need to retain the people who are working for us now.”

The long-term fix is to get people to do the job, Groder said, and then get them educated and get them signed up. But the interest isn’t there. In Augusta, only three students have signed up for firefighter classes in the vocational program, and fewer than a dozen are in the paramedic program, he said.

Seiberg has been working on a proposal to expand the staff of the Gardiner Ambulance Service and staff a crew at the Richmond Fire Station to expand the service’s capability in its own territory, even as it gets requests to respond much farther afield.

Even if he were able to hire eight more paramedics to staff an additional ambulance, it’s not a quick solution, because it could take several years to be able to fill those positions.

“I’m not convinced that the EMS system that we’re operating in now wasn’t destined to have this happen,” Groder said. “We were projecting this down the road five years. COVID just pushed us off the cliff.”

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