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Fort Fairfield Council Approves Full Time Fire and Ambulance Service


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, December 4, 2019

   The Fort Fairfield town council approved the lease-to-own arrangement on two new ambulances and a full time fire base service for the town of Fort Fairfield.  The start-up cost is anticipated to be around $1.137 million.

   The town will be borrowing the start-up money, rather than trying to force the taxpayers to come up with the funds all at once.  “We're borrowing the money so that we can responsibly set this department up for success rather than going to the community and asking them to raise the million,” said Fort Fairfield Town Manager, Andrea Powers.  “So, it slowly over time will be paid for.  It is overwhelming to look at these numbers, but these are start-up numbers.  These are not the working budget for year after year after year.” 

  Some of the councilors have indicated support for the service amongst community members. “I was talking with people around town and one of the comments was if we're gonna do it, get two ambulances because one ambulance is not going to do it so it was brought to my attention that we need two,” said town councilor, Mitch Butler.

“And you're saving lives,” added town councilor, Bob Kilcollins.  “That's the main focus.  I'm getting that from people in our community.  We look at the budget, that's a must, you have to look at the bottom number but at the end of the day what matters is saving our community's lives.”

   Adding a more temperate tone, Fort Fairfield Fire Chief, Vince Baldwin brought the expectations of an ambulance service more in line with reality, “We're here to protect you, but there are no guarantees,” Chief Baldwin told the council.  “Just because we put an ambulance in this town does not say that your loved one is going to live.  That's not being morbid, but it's being honest.  We're going to provide the best service that we can with what we have and do a very good job at providing EMS and fire protection for the citizens.”

   A former firefighter from New Hampshire, town councilor, Scott Smith had some concerns about the proposed financials for the new service.  “I asked during the work session what it was going to cost on the mil rate, I didn't get an answer,” said Smith.   “We're looking at their request here is $1.137 million.  The revenue coming in is $346,000.  That's quite a difference. 

Ms. Powers advised that she couldn't propose a mil rate until the town's revaluation was completed and a budget was approved by the council.

   Smith also had concerns about numbers appearing in the proposal for transports for Limestone and Caswell and the fact that there will be a deputy chief for the Fire Department in addition to the chief.  “Don't take this personal, chief, I'm not against you or your deputy.  But, I question why we have two administrators in the Fire Department for six individuals; that's quite a bit.  I know the police department only has one chief, they don't have a deputy.”

   Chief Baldwin responded to the Limestone/Caswell concern by stating those were just proposed numbers for comparison and no contracts with those two towns are currently being entertained.  “When you look at the budget and then you look at the revenue numbers, you have all of the information and data that we have collected so far.  When you look at the proposed budget as it is now, you'll see that we are only looking at Fort Fairfield as our initial response.  There are no contracts for Limestone or Caswell.  Those numbers are there.  We looked at it, they are obviously something to look at.  But the focus here the whole time has been the town and the citizens and covering our response.”

   He then addressed Smith's concern about a second administrator in the Fire/EMS service. “[The] Deputy Chief is labeled as an administrator, but it's a different position; it's a working position.  This position is going to help us staff up.  Take me out of the picture for a day and there's a deputy and two people.  Two go on an EMS response and that one person, the staffing that is left back at the station, can do several things;  they have a fire call they can go start some things of that nature or maybe we have a callback system with our employees, we bring someone in we can staff another ambulance.  But it is a total working position as well as management duties.”

   The reason for the ramp up to full time fire and ambulance is Crown Ambulance is ceasing EMS transports for all communities at the end of the year and Fort Fairfield is attempting to fill that void by providing that service itself.  Since the station will be occupied anyway, it only makes sense to make those staff members dual purpose by also providing full time fire protection service concomitantly.  “That was the plan and the purpose of it, in my view, [is] we have two issues here in our town,” explained Chief Baldwin.  “We have an EMS issue that we're addressing and we also have a fire protection issue.  This whole plan is to build our department, our service, to try to accomplish those tasks as best we can.  Now we can't - as you know - get staffing and fire response and run to scenes and all that stuff you can't do that unless you hire a ton of people -  we can't afford to do that in our town; this approach was to get us something.” 

   The plan is to purchase on a lease-to-own basis two new ambulances and to equip them with all the necessary equipment needed for an ambulance service.  “These prices that you see are lease-purchase for a five-year plan.  Ideally, we will own them eventually and these vehicles will hopefully last us ten years.  The plan is we'll own them in five, we'll get another five out of them we should have a plan obviously for putting money away and then we'll have investments things of that nature,” said Baldwin.  “This process of leasing is going to save us a lot of money every year.  Yes, we're still spending the money.  However, it's in [small] amounts versus all at once.”

   The council based its decision on estimated revenues developed by town staff during a workshop on the Fire/EMS service.  “The revenues that you see are a conservative, projected revenue the town of Fort Fairfield, with the best numbers that we have to use available to us.   These numbers are not going to ever pay for this service and I've never told you it would,” Baldwin explained.  “To be totally honest, there's no mirrors here.  This is about, in my view, public service to this town; how can we better provide that.  There's no question that any of you don't feel the same way.  You've expressed that, you all feel the same way, but these numbers will not ever equal out.  You will always, in my opinion and running a business, will always try to improve and do better and try to increase with, in mind, our citizens first.”

   “In my opinion, and my experience, we need to keep our citizens in town in check first.  Sometimes, that may come at an expense.  For example, maybe not responding to Caswell or Limestone because we need to focus on our town and our citizens.”

   With that said, Chief Baldwin did indicate that mutual aid agreements are in place between neighboring towns' fire departments and could be formed for EMS, as well.  Now, on a bigger scale, we're still going to have to help each other out.  We require mutual aid from all our surrounding towns when we have a structure fire and so will they, and the same on the EMS side.  It's all about working together.  There's going to be that, even though we are taking care of our town.”\

   “The logistics have to be worked out,” councilman Smith concurred.  “I understand how the mutual aid system works and we do have a responsibility to help our neighbors, if we add them I'd just like to see a bigger piece of the pie from them. Your estimated subsidy is only $27,000 for 377 billable calls.  I think we should get a little bit more up front.   I was talking to somebody today about Caribou [Ambulance].  I guess they do calls to Connor and those residents pay less than what the citizens in Caribou pay for service.  Somebody asked one of the councilors why is that; it's because that's all they want to pay.  That seems unreasonable to me.”

   “You're going to see things change,” Baldwin responded.  “They have changed in Caribou - what they're going to put out for a billing schedule - and Presque Isle's will change and their approach has changed to what's south of them because the towns can't take that burden, so they need to put out a number that's going to pay for those associated costs.” 

   The council voted unanimously to approve the two ambulances and full time fire service, but Smith, voting to approve said he still had some reservations.  “With a little reservation, I've always been supportive of the fire service, but I do vote Aye.  I'd still like to hear some more numbers, though, as you gather the information.”

   As of December 31, 2019, Crown Ambulance will no longer be providing EMS response in central Aroostook County. 

   “I have spoken with Limestone and Caswell and they are moving forward immediately because their concern is the December 31 deadline,” said Ms. Powers.  “We are not ready for the December 31 deadline.  We need to be focused on setting our department up and moving forward in that fashion before we can provide that service for anyone else.”

   Fort Fairfield is currently contracting with Presque Isle Fire Department for ambulance service until they can get their own up and running.