PORTLAND – The Peaks Island Council plans an emergency workshop tonight to meet with Portland officials about the city’s plan to replace one of the police positions for the island with a firefighter.

Two officers, at least one of whom is trained as an emergency medical technician, are on duty on Peaks Island much of the time. It requires eight officers to cover all the shifts involved in the around-the-clock staffing.

Fewer public safety workers are assigned to the island in the winter, when the number of calls diminishes. About 1,000 people live on Peaks in the winter; there are four times that many in the summer.

Residents are attracted to the island for its relative isolation and pay the price with less access to conveniences. However, adequate emergency medical care is considered a necessity.

Residents have become increasingly concerned about reliable medical coverage, particularly since the death of a resident in December 2008, when only one emergency medical responder arrived and needed others in the patient’s house to help transport him and drive the ambulance.

City Manager Joe Gray’s budget recommends replacing four police officers with firefighters who now are assigned to the city’s fireboat. That would let the city eliminate four vacant police positions while addressing concerns expressed by islanders.

“At many Peaks Island Council meetings over the last couple of years, we’ve heard very little about law enforcement and quite a lot about the need for improved fire and rescue service,” said City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes Peaks Island. “This proposal is not only intended to raise the profile of fire and rescue, but also to expand the times at which full coverage is available.”

Donoghue said tonight’s meeting, which is set for 6:30, will allow police and fire officials to discuss the relative training of their staffs and give the public a chance to weigh in on the proposal.

“If people feel very strongly the status quo is superior to the proposed scenario, that certainly is something I would take seriously,” Donoghue said.

Peaks Island Council member Thomas Bohan, who serves on the group’s public safety committee, said the proposal surprised some island residents.

“We have been sort of left out of the loop in terms of discussing what change would be acceptable on the island,” said Bohan, who believes that having adequate medical coverage is the top priority.

“Most of us question, do we really need to have two police (officers) on the island? We do need to have two trained medical personnel,” he said.

City officials have been getting e-mail from people who are worried about the change.

Some officers have expressed concern that having a single officer on the island at any time could compromise safety because any backup in a dangerous situation would take time to reach the island. Officers rely on the fireboat to take them to the island in an emergency; otherwise, they ride the ferry.

A plan to buy a dedicated police boat still hinges on whether the department can find grant funding to pay for maintaining the vessel, said Police Chief James Craig.

Craig said Gray’s proposal makes sense for the island and for the police department. A review of calls for service on the island shows that most of the calls are medical in nature. Officers used force once on the island last year, compared with more than 170 times on the mainland, he said.

Under the plan, officers would be reassigned to teams on the mainland, Craig said. The elimination of four vacant police positions is not ideal, but he said a federal grant obtained last year is funding six new positions, giving the department a net increase of two positions.

Fire Chief Fred Lamontagne said assigning a firefighter to the island would leave the fireboat shorthanded. When the boat needs to respond in an emergency, members of land-based fire companies or rescue workers would report to the boat.

When the boat is on non-emergency assignments, the firefighter would be picked up from Peaks, he said.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]