SEARSPORT — Ambulance Director Adrian Stone said his emergency response department is “at the cliff’s edge” in terms of staffing, due to the loss of emergency medical technicians.

A couple of crew members will be heading off to college, while others are moving away, he said. And with the recent statewide mandate requiring health care workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, Stone said, “we are losing some there” as well.

The shortage of EMTs is a systemwide challenge, he said, affecting emergency responders across the state. The problem, as he sees it, is that “we need to be getting more younger people” to take on these roles. Unfortunately, they leave to go work at jobs that pay a lot more money. “We’ve been struggling with pay,” Stone said.

Many say they really enjoy the work, but have to look for a job elsewhere to be able to pay their rent or buy groceries.

Stone said the average entry-level wage for an EMT in the state is between $14 and $15 an hour, with many of them getting paid stipends or a per-call wage. An advanced EMT receives around $1 to $1.50 more an hour, and a paramedic, along with receiving more training, makes $19 to $20 an hour. Municipally run departments usually do pay more, he said, and have unions.

To attract new and younger people into the program in a relatively short time, Stone had an idea. He proposed to take a cut in his own pay in order to boost EMT wages.  “I offered this as a quick way to stay within our budget confines,” he said.

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway presented Stone’s proposal at the Aug. 17 Select Board meeting, cautioning that the town was currently embarking on a compensation review for all municipal employees. Gillway said that by putting the ambulance service ahead of the process, Stone’s proposal could create hard feelings among other staff members.

Further, he said, Stone is a salaried employee with a one-year contract that has four months remaining. The board would have to terminate his contract and draw up a new one.

“I would caution that the process takes a little bit of time and sets a precedent for future directors,” he said. If the town took the action Stone suggested, it could also face legal challenges, in which case the board would need guidance from legal counsel.

The board ultimately decided to table the decision on whether to accept Stone’s offer to lower his pay for the benefit of higher EMT wages until it got advice from the town’s lawyer.

In a conversation with The Republican Journal Aug. 18, Stone said he understood the board’s decision to be cautious, because “it might open up other people to do the same,” though he thought it unlikely anyone would petition to get paid less. He felt if both parties were amenable to his proposal, the board could easily renegotiate his contract.

While the board did not flat-out say no, Stone said, the issue will probably be discussed in the salary workshop as part of the ongoing compensation review of all town employees. The process is lengthy, Stone said, with the workshop being the first step, then a second workshop to finalize the proposal, and then a third public meeting where residents will vote on the measure.

“For me it is frustrating trying to come up with solutions to move forward,” he said. “I thought this was a quick solution until we had the workshop, to fund EMS at levels where they should be at.”

Speaking with the Journal Aug. 19, Gillway said many ambulance departments across the state are seeing the same problems related to filling shifts, and Searsport overall has done fairly well.

The department started as all volunteers, he said, then moved to being stipend-paid, and now EMTs receive hourly wages. Gillway did not agree that more money would cause technicians to change plans to attend college or move away and added that the board should not put any employee ahead of any other.

“Like everything else in government,” he said, “there is no overnight decision without putting in a great amount of thought.

“We greatly appreciate what they do,” he said, “like all of our employees who worked through the pandemic and did a wonderful job.”

A public compensation review workshop is scheduled for Sept. 7 at 4 p.m. in Union Hall, prior to the regular board meeting.