The problem faced by all-volunteer, rural rescue squads often isn’t that there aren’t willing volunteers ”“ in many communities, there are. It’s that there aren’t enough trained volunteers available at certain times, usually due to work commitments. Availability, rural rescue chiefs say, seems to be the major stumbling block.

Some communities are examining alternatives, such as hiring per diem emergency services personnel to answer calls ”“ others already do. Wells, for example, has operated a per diem rescue operation for several years. Other departments use per diem staff to augment full-time staff and volunteers.

Currently, Acton and Shapleigh are working on solutions they hope will provide consistent, local rescue services. They’re each pursuing some form of per diem staffing. Any proposal that emerges will be presented to residents at a Town Meeting vote; Shapleigh’s is in March, and Acton’s is in June.

Acton Rescue Chief Jerry Sayre said when she started in the rescue field 20 years ago, people worked closer to home, or, in many cases, only one spouse worked outside of the home. Companies used to let employees leave to answer rescue calls, but most folks don’t work that close to home anymore. And for those who do, Sayre said, rescue calls can take three to four hours away from their work day.

It adds up like this: A call is received, the ambulance rolls, and the patient is examined, placed in the rescue vehicle and transported to the hospital. Then, there’s paperwork to complete before the ambulance can make the return trip home. And some calls take longer than others. A trip to Maine Medical Center in Portland, for example, takes more time than one to the Sanford campus of Southern Maine Health Care. The hospital to which the ambulance travels, of course, is determined by the condition of the patient.

Acton gets about 200 rescue calls each year, Sayre estimated.

Sayre said in the past year, the rescue squad has added three more licensed volunteer emergency medical technicians, but still, she said, there are times when there’s no coverage ”“ though it’s getting better. She said the last report from Sanford Regional Communications shows Acton Rescue is the primary responder to 73 percent of its calls.

“My primary goal is getting calls covered,” she said. “We’ve done a lot this year to improve, but it’s not enough.”

Sayre said the plan currently in the works will unite Acton rescue and fire departments. There’s still a lot to do to work out budgets and schedules and other details before the proposal makes its way to the voters in June.

The per diem proposals come with a price, which varies depending on the number of ambulance runs a year, and other factors. Waterboro, which uses a combination of full-time and per diem workers for rescue calls, approved $178,000 at the June Town Meeting to pay per diem staff. Fire Chief Matt Bors estimated Waterboro handles roughly 700 rescue calls annually.

Both Acton and Shapleigh, which is also looking at per diem staffing, were spurred on, at least in part, by news that the Sanford Fire Department might start charging the communities $2,000 per call when Sanford is the primary responder. That hasn’t happened yet, and Sanford Fire Chief Steve Benotti said he’s aware Acton and Shapleigh are working on plans to alleviate the situation.

But the Town of Lebanon did get a letter, and Sanford isn’t the only community letting that town know that departments involved are going above and beyond the usual mutual aid relationship. North Berwick, Milton, New Hampshire and the rescue services provided by Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New Hampshire have each acted as the primary rescue responder in Lebanon on numerous occasions in the past year, and will charge a fee when they’re the primary responder. The usual mutual aid agreement ”“ when Sanford is the secondary responder, or the primary responder because Lebanon Rescue is tied up on another call ”“ won’t generate a fee.

Neither Lebanon Rescue Chief Jenny Sheriff or Selectmen Chairman Ben Thompson responded to requests for comment on plans to address issues surrounding Lebanon Rescue.

“We’ve offered (Lebanon) assistance in many ways ”“ how to set up schedules, how to make a per diem system work, what your needs are based on ambulance runs and costs,” said Benotti. He said the Lebanon agency is “trying to work through some old problems and still has a long way to go.”

In Shapleigh, Rescue Chief Mike Deshaies said the squad is looking at a proposal to hire per diem personnel for the day shift, and if that works, they’ll consider expansion to additional shifts in the future. Deshaies said the department’s volunteers and officers have been getting out to more calls, but the time it involves strains families. He said a plan will be ready for voters to consider in March.

Even as the departments look to solve the issue of volunteer availability, another proposal is emerging.

County Manager Greg Zinser said he met with rescue personnel in a couple of rural towns to see if the county might be able to help, by providing a “rapid response” option to augment existing departments. Details would have to be worked out, but Zinser said he’s had an initial discussion with rescue personnel in Newfield and Acton, and hopes to meet with folks in Shapleigh and Limerick. If it seems like there’s interest, he’d then meet with selectmen in those communities, he said.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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