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Fort Fairfield to Provide its Own Fire and Ambulance Service


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, October 23, 2019


FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine - The Fort Fairfield town council voted unanimously to approve the formation of a full time Fire Department/EMS Service as a long-term solution to providing fire and ambulance service in Fort Fairfield.

   Fort Fairfield Fire Department has been an all-volunteer organization since around 1998.  In order to provide ambulance service in Fort Fairfield, and attract qualified applicants to the job positions, the town has opted to reinstate the Fire Department with full time positions that will be both Firefighter and Paramedic

   The plan is expected to cost around $900,000 for start-up costs and staffing for the first year.  It will consist of 8 full time positions with 2 people on per shift.  There are plans for three twenty-four hour shifts but how those shifts will be divided up are still to be determined.  Out of the 8 positions, two will be Deputy Chief and Chief.  This means when a fire call comes in, at least four people will be on hand to respond, as opposed to relying strictly on an all-volunteer force to take time off their jobs, if they can, in order to respond. 

   “My focus is our fire protection here in this town.  With a fire-based EMS service, not only can we try to provide a better fire protection than we currently have, but also to help provide our own EMS service in our town,” explained Chief Baldwin.  “That's kind of the focus on where this project is coming from.”

   In addition to staffing, Fort Fairfield will also have to acquire at least one ambulance and fully equip it.  During a recent workshop, FFFD Chief Vince Baldwin told the council there are several options available from purchasing to leasing and all are being considered.  While he presented a conservative proposal for one ambulance, the council indicated they would like a second ambulance to also be researched to be kept as a spare.  This would increase the $900,000 star-up costs to a little over $1 million.

  There are several license classes available for EMS services; EMT Basic, EMT-Advanced and EMT-Paramedic.  Baldwin says his goal is to work toward an EMT-Paramedic license for the town's service but the town can start at the lower EMT-Basic with a permission to Paramedic as an additional option.

   Baldwin says one of the challenges the town will face is in recruiting new employees to the position since the training for Paramedic is nearly at the level of a nurse, while the pay is around half that of a nurse.  Currently, the town is looking to hire for six positions that will serve as both Firefighter and EMS/Ambulance.

   The nearly $1 million price tag for the start-up costs and staffing is large, but the council is looking at creative ways to finance those costs so the taxpayers don't have to take a hit all at once.   An ambulance service is a revenue generator, though, and the town could recoup some of its investment in the form of service fees.  “When we did our numbers on Fort Fairfield, we did a $388 per call cost.  To be perfectly honest, you'll be able to generate revenue to offset some expenses.  The numbers show the anticipated revenue for our community of Fort Fairfield is $169,556. ,” said Baldwin.  “Some additional money can be made by larger ambulance fleets in transfers to downstate hospitals.  But with our service being smaller, I'm looking at focusing on our community and our 911 response.”

   “I'm never going to guarantee any of these numbers because that would be foolish.  You never know when you get down to the brass tacks what's collected, what's not collected, what's write-offs, but we can look at the averages and we can make some good estimations.  Certainly these are conservative.  The $388 per call is a conservative number.  So if we're running a higher advance service for that call than you can obviously make more.”

   Council members have also indicated they have seen overwhelmingly positive support from community members for a local ambulance service, which is currently being filled in by neighboring Presque Isle with a contract that is set to expire in May.  Currently, the Fort Fairfield Fire Department consists of Chief Baldwin and just 10 volunteers, some of whom may not be readily available to respond to a fire call due to other employment obligations.

   “We got to look at the fact that we had a full time fire department here at one time,” said town council member, Mitch Butler.  “When we went to a volunteer fire department it was working out good because we had more businesses in town; there were people who worked in town and the company owners let their people go handle the fire.  Now we don't have that.  The situation changed 120 percent.  Now we got people working out of town that would most love to come to a fire but they can't because of their jobs.  So I think we need to look at getting somebody here full time to answer these calls.  I've talked to people that their main concern is when they call an ambulance they don't want to wait half an hour, forty-five minutes.  They want the ambulance there in a reasonable time.  It's not [a question of] can Fort Fairfield afford to have a fire department/EMS, it's can Fort Fairfield not afford to have it.”

   “This is what I did for a living for forty years so I understand that this is needed,” said town council member, Scott Smith.  “What Mitch was talking about that the volunteers aren't available anymore, this is a nationwide trend.  It's happening everywhere.  When I worked in Laconia, we had over thirty volunteers.  It went to zero.  Then they had to put additional staff on.  The people that I have talked to want an ambulance service here.  It's unfortunate we lost the ambulance service and that service was going away, anyway.  It was getting worse, that's why they talked about 20 minute, 30 minute, 40 minute responses.  That's unacceptable.  When a person has a heart attack and they're out you've got four to six minutes.   We can have that here, again.  I'm not worried about the expense.  You are going to get revenues back.  Are you going to break even?  I don't think so.  Bill collecting is tough.  It's going to be hard.  But, it's a service that we need.  From what I've heard, it's what the people want.  I've not heard any negative.”

   Town council member, Melissa Libby is encouraged by the ambulance service's ability to recoup money so it won't be a permanent strain on local tax revenues.  “ I think a lot of people are very concerned what this is going to do tax-wise and I completely understand that.  But, what people are not looking at is this is also going to generate revenue,” said Libby.  “So, in a five year time span it should pay for itself.  There should not be, that I can foresee, a big need to increase the taxes.  As in anything else, this is very progressive thinking, this is something that maybe comes across as a little bit scary to our small town that isn't used to a lot of change.  It is a big thing, a big deal but it's something that's going to benefit us and help us to hopefully get more businesses in town; it's something that will open a lot of doors for us that we don't have right now.  I think the people need to just kind of open their minds and look at all of the aspects of this versus just this is going to raise my taxes because that may not be the case.  I don't know what is going to happen a year, two years from now, I don't think any of us do.  But, I think it can generate enough income to support itself.”

   Town manager, Andrea Powers said the local solution seems the best way to move forward in providing a long-term ambulance/EMS service in Fort Fairfield.  “The town of Fort Fairfield's fire-based EMS service will consist of highly qualified public servants trained to handle crisis after affecting both people and property,” said Ms. Powers.  “The dedication and training that these professionals and their commitment to their quality of care are two of the many reasons that fire-based emergency medical services is the clear choice for the town of Fort Fairfield.  Full time fire-based EMS is a system that works in the field, not only on paper.  What we would be gaining in response time, personnel capabilities, and system efficiency far exceeds the cost discussed.”

  Mutual aid agreements are already in place for firefighting services between Fort Fairfield and neighboring towns.  Presque Isle and Caribou have indicated a willingness to enter into Mutual Aid agreements with Fort Fairfield for Ambulance/EMS services once Fort Fairfield's service is up and running.

   Now that he's received council approval to move forward with the full time Fire/EMS service, Chief Baldwin will begin formulating a plan for acquiring an ambulance, and perhaps a spare, the equipment for them, the necessary contracts and licensing required, hire the staff and make some minor renovations to the town's fire station to accommodate the upgrade.  He hopes to have the service ready by Spring, 2020 as the contract with Presque Isle Fire Department's EMS service runs out in May.  However, he said Presque Isle is willing to continue working with Fort Fairfield on a month-to-month basis until the new ambulance service is ready to be deployed.

   Those interested in participating in the volunteer firefighter program only need to be over 18 years of age, pass a physical, have a valid driver's license and pass a background check.  Training is available.  Contact Chief Baldwin for more information.