PENOBSCOT COUNTY, Maine — Across the state, many emergency medical services departments are critically short-staffed, and that problem only seems to be getting worse.
Dispatchers who answer 911 calls and send out EMS crews said they're regularly sending ambulances outside of their coverage areas to help cover emergency calls.
Chris Lavoie, Penobscot Regional Communications Center director, said his dispatchers are frequently calling as many as seven different departments to find an available ambulance crew to send to a medical emergency.
"My employees are the ones that are stuck on the phone with the distraught family member of the person who needs care," Lavoie said.
Lavoie said the problem is getting worse because when people leave the industry, there aren't enough people waiting to fill those empty spots.
"No one wants to go into public safety. Before there used to be huge pools of applicants coming in. We're not getting those lists anymore. It doesn't matter which discipline it is, whether it's law enforcement, fire, EMS, or dispatch, we're not getting the applicants that we used to," Lavoie said.
Windham Fire Chief Brent Libby is the board chair for Maine EMS. The board recently sent resolutions to the governor's office and all members of the Maine Legislature requesting EMS be made an essential service on a county level. That would elevate ambulance personnel to the status of firefighters and police officers, affecting staffing requirements and service standards.
"Emergency medical services is a critical piece to the health care system in Maine, especially given our rural nature," Libby said.
Lavoie said while the resolution might be a step in the right direction for other counties, it's not enough to address where recruitment and retention are currently falling short.
He said part of the solution is to offer higher wages, as well as more funding to be able to provide the education necessary to be a certified EMS worker.
"I don't think there's a short-term solution to this problem because there's one thing that you can't rush, and that's education," Lavoie said.
Lavoie said he met with fire department chiefs of other towns and cities in Penobscot County last week. He said their next step is to start calling on Maine legislators to take action.
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