Augusta Fire Department and Summit Natural Gas work at the scene of a 2020 gas leak at the corner of Water and Winthrop streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — The number of emergency medical service calls Augusta Fire Department ambulances respond to has increased by about 100 calls a month in the last year. A recently added fourth ambulance and crew of eight new firefighter/paramedics is expected to help cover the increase.

A big part of the increase in calls for the city’s ambulances is due to a change in how many calls they get to transport patients from nursing homes and similar facilities in Augusta’s coverage area to the hospital. Most of those calls used to be handled by the private ambulance service Delta Ambulance who covers 13 municipalities spread over Kennebec, Somerset and Lincoln counties. That provider has greatly cut back on taking those calls, in order to free up its ambulances to be able to respond to emergency medical calls.

The change took place about a year ago and since that time, Augusta has seen its number of medical calls increase from 510 calls a month in 2022 to an average of 612 a month, in the last two quarters of 2023.

Fire Chief Dave Groder said Delta made the change so its ambulances can be available more often to respond to medical calls in its coverage area instead of being tied up transporting Augusta nursing home facility residents to the hospital.

He said the city’s fire department, which recently had its ranks boosted with the hiring of eight new firefighter/paramedics through federal grant funding, should be able to handle the increased calls, for now. However changes may be needed in the future as the city’s population continues to age and housing targeting senior citizens expands.

He said it’s in the city’s best interest to take the additional nursing home calls that were previously taken by Delta Ambulance to help Delta, which like other private ambulance services is struggling, financially, to maintain the other services it provides. He said not having Delta available to handle calls in its 13-town coverage area would be “catastrophic” for the area and increase the number of calls Augusta ambulance would have to respond to by the thousands.

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“We’re doing everything in our power to make sure Delta survives,” Groder told city councilors last week in a discussion prompted by councilors’ concerns about city ambulances responding to calls outside the city. “Because we don’t want them to fail, that would be catastrophic. If that service fails that’s an additional 4,000 calls in this community.”

Chris Mitchell, executive director of Waterville-based Delta Ambulance, said Wednesday they made the change to help ensure their fleet of 16 ambulances and intercept vehicles is available to respond to emergency calls.

“We cover a pretty large area outside of Augusta, and we’d be taking calls in the city (for nursing home runs) and our trucks would be tied up,” Mitchell said. “It seemed like we could be utilizing our resources better. So Augusta covers most of those nursing home calls now and we’re keeping our trucks where they’re supposed to be, a bit better.”

Last year Delta responded to about 9,500 calls.

Groder and Augusta Deputy Chief Steve Leach said another factor in the city’s trend of  increasing number of medical calls is the city’s aging population and growth in senior housing.

Groder said two years ago 47% of the departments medical calls were for people 55 and older, and now that’s increased to 55 to 60%.

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“With all the (senior) housing coming in, we look to the future, and every day we get older, we see our call volume rising,” Groder said. “Are we able to sustain what we’re doing right now? I think we’re in pretty good position. How far down the road that’s going to change, where our call volume exceeds our capabilities, I don’t think I’ll see that in my time, but I don’t think it’s too far off. Especially as you see more housing, and the needs change.”

The city added a fourth ambulance to its staffed fleet of rescue vehicles on April 29, in part to help take on the growing number of calls, for both fire and medical incidents.

The additional ambulance will be staffed in part by eight new firefighter/paramedics the city hired recently, with $2.5 million federal Staffing for Adequate Fire Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant funding, for the next three years.

The SAFER grants are meant to boost firefighting but in Augusta firefighters also are paramedics and both ambulances and fire trucks respond to fire calls.

The fourth ambulance also is expected to decrease the number of times the department has to reach out for mutual aid from other area services to respond to medical calls in Augusta because all its ambulances are already out on calls.

In the first week of having the fourth ambulance, there were 112 calls for EMS services, with 68 of them occurring simultaneously. Of those simultaneous calls, there were two ambulances out at once 13 times, three out at once 10 times, and all four out at once three times.

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Even with the additional ambulance, Augusta, Delta and other ambulance services, such as those in Winthrop and Gardiner, sometimes rely on ambulances from the other services to handle calls in their communities.

Augusta and Delta officials said ambulance services will continue to respond to medical emergencies in other area communities when called for help. They noted it works both ways, with services helping each other meet the demand even when multiple calls come in at once.

“Nobody is an island, we all run out of trucks every now and then,” Delta’s Mitchell said. “That’s just the way it works, nobody can staff adequately to cover all those call surges.”

Leach said area services, like area fire departments, rely on each other to help ensure their citizens have access to emergency medical transportation when they call for help.

“We try not to say no, we try to look at it like the call may be routine for us, but for the person calling, it could be the worst day of their life,” Leach said. “If I was sitting at home and had a problem, and the ambulance in my town wasn’t available, I’d hope someone else would come.”

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