SEARSPORT — Across the state, cities and towns are finding it hard to hire and sustain sufficient numbers of emergency first responders.

EMS staffing shortages are at crisis level across the industry, according to Searsport Town Manager James Gillway. Just recently, the town’s Select Board approved a $1,000 sign-on bonus to attract EMTs and ambulance drivers.

“Anyone who has an ambulance is struggling,” he said.

While the town is looking to expand its staff of firefighters and EMTs, mutual aid departments have stepped up to pick up the slack. “We have a good mutual aid system helping us get through this,” Gillway said. 

While ambulance coverage is down, he said, “we are still mustering up crews” to respond and occasionally relying on mutual aid.

In an August interview with Searsport Ambulance Director Adrian Stone, who has since stepped down, he said his emergency response department was “at the cliff’s edge” in terms of staffing, because of the loss of medical technicians. 

Stone said a couple of crew members left to attend college and others moved away. Some also left after the state vaccine mandate took effect in October. Stone left the department in November after 13 1/2 years with the ambulance service.

He had offered in August to take a cut in his own salary to boost EMT wages as a quick way to stay within the town’s budget and attract younger people to the service.

Three months later, the town’s discussion of pay is still unfolding. Gillway said salary reviews would be discussed in next week’s board meeting. “All pay in the town of Searsport needs to be looked at,” he added. 

The town will no longer be looking for an ambulance director, Gillway said, instead opting for a public safety director, who will oversee the ambulance service. Police Chief Todd Boisvert was appointed to fill the position for a six-month term on a pilot basis.

Belfast recently announced an increase in fire and ambulance salaries and wages, in an effort to attract and retain staff. The starting wage for firefighters and EMTs with dual firefighter training and EMS certification is now at least $24 an hour.

Belfast City Manager Erin Herbig said, “It is difficult to quantify how valuable each of our first responders is to our community. When our department goes short staffed, it means longer response times, and what could be the difference between life and death for any of us or anyone that we love.”

Currently, first responders in the city have to pick up back-to-back shifts and work extended hours to make up for staffing shortages and ensure that citizens are able to receive the help they need. 

“We are confident that this investment will retain our current roster and grow our department,” Belfast Fire Chief Patrick Richards said.

When asked how many EMTs have left the Searsport Ambulance Department, Gillway said he did not have an answer. “There were a few who left before Adrian’s departure, and after he left a few more left as well.”

Training is also a retention issue, Gillway said, with a high level of commitment needed. It is similar to police and fire department personnel with continuous training occurring each year. The rewards from a job like this are great, he said, but maintaining certification is not easy.

“God bless them,” he said. “We need them.”

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