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Lewiston Firefighters Blast Council’s Decision to Renew Private Ambulance Contract; Fight for Better Service & Response Times for Lewison

Andy O’Brien
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The Lewiston City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to spend at least a half-million dollars to continue its contract with the private emergency services provider United Ambulance Service (UAS), despite firefighters’ concerns about delayed response times. Lewiston Professional Firefighters (IAFF 785) President Rick Cailler argues that the council has “basically accepted the fact the substandard EMS response is acceptable” for the city.

“Dominos promises 100 percent delivery in under 30 minutes. United Ambulance has never met 100 percent delivery in OVER 30 minutes,” the union wrote on Facebook. “In the last 12 months they failed to even respond to more than 168 medical emergencies and now the city will be giving UAS MORE of your tax dollars! United is placing dollars over life safety and the city is failing to hold them accountable!”

Voting to renew the contract were Councilors Susan Longchamps, Scott Harriman, Eryn Soule-Leclair and David Chittam. Voting against it were Councilors Joshua Nagine, Michael Roy and Tim Gallant.

Currently, Lewiston is the only city in the state without a municipal ambulance service. When someone calls 911 for a medical emergency in Lewiston, the dispatcher calls United Ambulance, but UAS often prioritizes using its ambulances for transfers of patients to other locations because they are more profitable than staying to answer calls in Lewiston, says Cailler.

As a result, he says UAS was unable to respond to 168 medical emergency calls in the the past year in Lewiston. Instead, dispatchers had to refer those calls to surrounding EMS providers as far away as Buckfield and Poland. Cailler said Auburn Fire responded to 117 calls and Lisbon Emergency responded 51 times when there were no UAS ambulances available in the past year.

In one such instance on February 9, Cailler said that a man called reporting chest pains, but UAS had three trucks out-of-town and the call wasn’t dispatched for at least more than fifteen minutes while it waited for a free ambulance. When a call is “held” like that, it means mutual aid units who may be available to  respond to the call are not being notified. IAFF 785 has called on the city to provide information on how long the exact delay of the call was because UAS has refused to provide that information.

"They've held calls when doing more lucrative transfers," Cailler told News Center. "I don't think it’s right holding calls, morally. It’s reprehensible for someone having a heart attack, and they’re not even bothering to dispatch an ambulance for fifteen minutes.”

In 2022, dispatchers, EMT’s, AEMT’s, and Paramedics at United Ambulance overwhelmingly voted to unionize with Teamster Local 340, citing concerns about safety issues. In February, UAS employees voted to authorize a strike out of frustration with contract negotiations. UAS paramedic Ben Van Dyke told WMTW at the time that the company was more concerned with making money shuttling non-emergency patients discharged from the hospital than they are about the safety of their employees. He alleged that the company was breaking its own policies by accepting long trips from Lewiston to Bangor during overnight hours.

IAFF 785 called on the city to amend the contract with UAS so that the 911 dispatch center could assign their ambulances for calls coming in. This would bring more accountability to UAS, Cailler said.

“They’re fine with just dumping the city of every ambulance, taking transfers sometimes to Boston, Portland and even Fort Kent for psych evals and just leaving ambulances out of town,” said Cailler. “Then the taxpayers are paying for an ambulance and the city believes that because we have a contract with United we don’t need fire-based EMS, but you’re paying for nothing.”