SABATTUS — The man was in his 70s and had decided, for reasons unknown, to pull his truck from his garage with a rope. The maneuver went awry. He fell in his driveway.

Fire Chief Don Therrien heard the call for United Ambulance from his radio at the fire station. He heard United report it was too busy and ask Lisbon to respond. The man lay just a few streets away.

Officially, Therrien couldn’t respond without being dispatched — town policy didn’t cover that. He drove over to see if the man was OK, as a good Samaritan, not a firefighter, and beat the ambulance.

“It is very frustrating to be sitting here and watching a United rig go by when you’ve got trained personnel right here,” Therrien said.

It’s incidents like that, which happened this past summer, that he thought showed why firefighters ought to be responding to emergency calls for medical help in town.

Beginning Sunday, they will be.

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This past fall, selectmen approved a six-month trial that will allow volunteer firefighters who are also trained emergency medical technicians to be dispatched to potentially life-threatening calls to offer resuscitation, stop bleeding and use a defibrillator, stabilizing residents before an ambulance arrives.

Therrien said he’s tried to keep costs to the public as low as possible. Ten firefighters were already EMTs. Four more paid for the training themselves. They’re all prepared to offer EMT services for the next 18 months free of charge.

The department bought start-up equipment with a $9,000 grant from the Stephen King Foundation. Liability insurance for the new unit cost $517 for a year.

“It’s our town; we want to be able to do this for the town residents,” said Tom Avery, a volunteer firefighter and new emergency medical services chief. “Money is tight, (but) what’s the cost of a human life?”

Avery, his wife, Diane, Assistant Chief Lori Morin and firefighter Nick Blais started researching the move in January 2011: How often did United come to Sabattus? What sort of equipment would a new unit need? How much would everything cost? They approached selectmen with the results over the summer.

About a decade before, residents in the town of 5,000 had said no.

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“I don’t believe back then (we) got all of the facts and figures and prices,” Therrien said. “The town was mostly worried about the insurance part of it. They shot it down at town meeting.”

This time, selectmen, in a 5-1 vote, tentatively said yes. In June, after the six-month trial, townspeople will weigh in again. Therrien estimated the cost for the first full year, mostly to cover insurance and licensing, at $2,000.

Town Manager Andrew Gilmore estimated an additional $2,500 in dispatch fees.

The Fire Department already responds to about 170 calls a year, half of those car accidents. Therrien has projected an extra 200 to 300 calls a year for EMS responses. Some firefighters will keep emergency gear in their vehicles and respond directly to a scene, without the truck.

“It’s hard to make the argument it’s not worth being able to send our trained professionals to emergencies who are right here,” Gilmore said. Sabattus has been happy with United’s service, he said, and it will still respond to each call: “This is really supplementing. If we’re in the area, we can get there first. In an incident where every second counts, the ones who win are the patients.”

Firefighters in Mechanic Falls, Minot, Greene and New Gloucester already respond in the same way, Therrien said.

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United Ambulance is dispatched out of Lewiston to emergency medical scenes, sometimes asking Sabattus firefighters to join if EMTs need help. Beginning Sunday, United responders and Sabattus firefighters will be dispatched at the same time.

From the station, Therrien said he can be anywhere in town within three minutes.

Firefighters responding now to fires and accidents work on a point system, earning so many points toward compensation at the end of the year. Therrien said an additional 300 calls on a point system could run as much as $15,000. He didn’t want to approach the town for that amount, and neither did the firefighters.

“We’re going to build this program very slowly,” he said.

About $900 is left of the equipment grant and the unit is hoping for donations for the rest of its wish list: glucometers, a basket for extractions, a fracture care kit.

Therrien said volunteers were excited about the change.

“They get stale; they get bored and they go away if you don’t keep your members active,” he said. “We’re always going forward in Sabattus, and I think we’re going at it at minimum cost.”

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