ORRINGTON, Maine — When Fire Chief Mike Spencer took the post in 2005 he was given the task of creating a completely new municipal department — Orrington Fire and Rescue — from the ashes of the town’s two volunteer fire and ambulance departments.
Spencer worked part-time as the fire chief at the time, making about $16 a day, and over the next three years changed what remained of the two individual volunteer departments into a unified department residents can be proud of, he said.
“It’s my goal to provide the community the very best emergency service I can provide, at the cheapest cost,” he said last week.
For his labors, selectmen decided in July to make Spencer the town’s full-time fire chief. In addition to the $43,000 salary, they also gave him two new jobs as the town’s emergency management director and health officer.
“It has rounded out the department heads in town,” Town Manager Carl Young said last week. “It has worked out exceedingly well” and has provided fire department employees a voice in town governance.
Spencer thought, at first, that going full-time would give him more time “to do what needs to be done,” but what he has found is that he has more work to do.
“When you’re part-time you do the very best that you can and there are things that have to be compromised,” he said. “You shoot from the hip. That’s where we were at.”
Keeping up with the paperwork, and ahead of state and federal regulations, has kept him very busy over the last four months.
“I still don’t have a handle on that,” he said. “It’s definitely a full-time job. There is no way I could go back to being a part-time fire chief.”
In the last year, the department has responded to nearly 300 calls, and Spencer said he expects the numbers to increase as the community grows.
“Medical calls are 85 to 90 percent of our call volume,” he said.
In addition to his three jobs, Spencer also has been asked to begin work on designs for replacing the 1950s fire station.
“We know there is a need for a new fire station,” he said. “The station we’re in is literally falling down around us. There is an issue with stability of the station itself.”
The cement of the north-side wall has “deteriorated to the point where it’s not stable any more. It’s crumbling,” Spencer said.
The current station also needs a new roof, which leaks water and has caused a mold problem, he said.
“With the deterioration of the original fire station, the next logical step is a new fire station,” Young said.
With town-owned land on the corner of Tupper and Center drives, and capital infrastructure and other funds on hand, “Orrington would not have to borrow the money or increase taxes” to build a new public safety facility, he said.
“It will be great,” Spencer said. “My firemen definitely deserve it and, to me, the community deserves a new public safety building.”
For five months before the creation of Orrington Fire and Rescue in October 2005, the town went without services because not enough volunteers could be found. At that time, town leaders considered joining a regional fire district with Brewer, but residents had other ideas, Young said.
“Residents said unanimously that ‘we want one of our own,’” he said. “They made that decision in 2005, and funded it. The town has been very, very happy with it.”
All the changes in the last three years have created a community service that residents deserve, Young said.
“I receive, on a regular basis, letters” of thanks from residents, he said. “They just feel more comfortable. They know who shows up. And they [emergency responders] give 110 percent all of the time.”
In addition to earning a full-time position with the town, Spencer also fought for higher wages for his employees, which residents approved at the annual town meeting in June.
“All of these individuals have full-time jobs,” he said. “Those full-time jobs have to come first so they can feed their families. Orrington Fire is their part-time job.”
In fact, Spencer still drives part-time for R.H. Foster, making oil deliveries to supplement his salary.
In addition to his extended family at the fire station, Spencer’s family at home has always supported him.
“They’re behind me 100 percent,” he said. “My family had to take a heck of a hit for me to be happy. I love what I do, but you don’t get rich being a fire chief. My family sucked it up and never complained.”
Most of his crew, 18 of the 26, are cross-trained as firefighter-EMTs, he said proudly. His officers are Assistant Chief Scott Stewart, Capt. Fred Wood and Lts. Tim Kenny and John Cunningham.
“I can’t say enough about my people,” he said. “It’s them I [give] credit to for the changes that we’ve made. They’re always willing to give.”