CASTINE, Maine - At 7 a.m. on New Year's Day, an organization that has served residents of this tight-knit coastal community during their times of greatest need will quietly close its doors.
The sirens of Castine's EMS corps, Bagaduce Ambulance, are going silent on Sunday after 35 years of operation, an apparent victim to staffing challenges faced by volunteer fire and rescue crews across Maine.
To fill the void, Castine officials have arranged for a private service provider that already serves towns on the Blue Hill peninsula -- Peninsula Ambulance Corps -- to handle emergency calls. Some former Bagaduce members are also offering to assist as "first responders" to the scene during the 20 to 30 minutes it will take for a Peninsula ambulance to arrive.
"We expect response times to be a little longer but not a great deal longer and, at the same time, we are in the process of setting up the first-responder program," said Dale Abernethy, Castine's town manager.
But in addition to longer response times, Bagaduce's closure also represents a loss of a local institution that has been part of the literal lifeblood of Castine, which is home to Maine Maritime Academy, a mix of families and retirees and a vibrant summer tourism scene.
"This is a hard day," Sarah Hudson, president of Bagaduce Ambulance, said Saturday.
Bagaduce's board of directors voted unanimously in September to terminate operations due to ongoing difficulties finding enough volunteers to fill the three seats -- one driver and two emergency medical technicians -- needed for every ambulance response and transport. The town of Castine has increasingly relied on Peninsula Ambulance to respond to emergency calls when a team from Bagaduce was unavailable.
Bagaduce has about 35 active members, roughly half of which are certified as EMTs or higher and half of which are ambulance drivers.
Hudson, who founded Bagaduce Ambulance with several others in 1977, said the breaking point came earlier this year when not a single local resident signed up for her EMT training course for the first time in the 40 classes she has taught the class.
"I had nobody from the town. It was just MMA students," Hudson said.
Asked why interest in volunteering with Bagaduce is declining, Hudson said there are likely a number of factors at play. The existing cadre of volunteers is aging and many younger residents are working multiple jobs or are busy with family, she said. But Hudson added that people seem less willing to make the commitment these days.
Castine's situation is not unique.
"Unfortunately, it is not a new issue," said Jay Bradshaw, director of Maine Emergency Medical Services, the division of the Department of Public Safety that coordinates all EMS activities in the state. "Around the state and around the country, there is a shortage of volunteers."
Bradshaw said volunteerism levels ebb and flow but that communities in rural areas of Maine appear to be struggling the hardest to maintain adequate crew numbers. The reality is that being an EMT is not a job for everyone and some people find it difficult to either do the job or keep up with the time commitment or training requirements, he said.
Even some towns with part-time paid EMTs are struggling to come up with a system that works. Town officials in nearby Bucksport, which has a mix of both full-time firefighter/EMS providers and paid on-call members, are discussing shortages there. And other all-volunteer EMS units around the state have been forced to close in recent years.
Bradshaw said, while Bagaduce's closure is regrettable, he hopes it could raise public awareness about the critical need for volunteers.
"People think you call 9-1-1 and an ambulance shows up," Bradshaw said. "It's hard for them to appreciate what it takes behind the scenes" to run an EMS unit.
Castine's contract with Peninsula Ambulance will cost the town $11.44 per capita, or roughly $15,000. Abernethy praised Peninsula's leadership for their willingness to work with the town and said he hopes the transition will go smoothly.
Bagaduce held an event to thank its volunteers in early December. But as the final hours ticked away on Saturday, Hudson said she wasn't sure if she would go to the ambulance headquarters to turn off the lights early Sunday to mark the end of Bagaduce's service to the town.
"I started it 35 years ago so it is very sad," she said.