Valeri Beers walked into her neighbor’s home a few months after moving to Passadumkeag and saw firefighting gear — boots, a jacket and helmet — hanging near the front door.
Something inside her clicked.
“I saw her fire gear and said ‘I have to check that out,’” the petite mother of a toddler said Monday.
With a desire to give back to her adopted community, Beers marched over to the town’s volunteer fire department and signed up, joined a long line of volunteer firefighters that stretches back to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and all able-bodied men of that time who did their neighborly duty and pitched in to fight fires.
Benjamin Franklin helped found the country’s first volunteer fire department — the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia — in 1736.
Times have changed, however. Fire chiefs around the state, region and nation are seeing fewer and fewer volunteer firefighters.
“Recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters is one of the key issues being addressed jointly by the NVFC and U.S. Fire Administration,” according to the National Volunteer Fire Council Web site.
Of the estimated 1,148,800 volunteer and career firefighters serving across this country in 2008, about 72 percent, or 825,450, were volunteers. Compared to 1984, that’s a decrease of more than 8 percent, the NVFC‘s 2008 Fact Sheet states.
Maine had between 11,000 and 12,000 volunteers a decade ago and today has approximately 9,000, Madawaska Fire Chief Richard Cyr, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters, said Tuesday.
For insurance reasons and according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, most volunteer firefighters are now paid a stipend or hourly wage. They are considered on-call personnel, and the communities they serve pay for their insurance and gear.
The few firefighters who remain truly volunteer — Passadumkeag firefighters are among the last remaining in the state — are considered part-time town employees for insurance reasons, Fire Chief Brent Faloon said Thursday.
Busy schedules, the significant amount of training required nowadays and a detachment from the long-held tradition of community service are the main reasons the number of on-call firefighters has dropped, Brewer Fire Chief Rick Bronson said last week.
The Brewer Fire Department has a full-time staff of 13 firefighters and uses on-call personnel to fill in for people who take vacations or a day off, Bronson said as firefighters trained at the fire station.
“When I came on, there [were] 25 on-call firefighters,” he said. “Now there are seven with two officers.”
One candidate is training to be an on-call firefighter, Bronson said. Brewer and other departments, including Orono, are looking for recruits.
“We’re looking for a few good men,” he said. “Not everybody can do this, but we wish you’d come try.”
In Brewer, trainees get minimum wage. On-call firefighters earn $12 an hour and more if they get additional training.
“It’s not the money” people care about, Faloon said. “It’s the time. People don’t want to give you the time for any amount of money.”
Fire Chief Thomas Doe of the Winterport Volunteer Fire Department said recently, “It’s getting tougher and tougher to find volunteers.”
“We’re pretty lucky here. We got two this year,” he said. “It’s hard. One thing that makes it even harder is getting through the process to get people trained. It’s pretty intense.”
Basic Firefighter I training takes 110 to 120 hours. Without the book and practical education candidates are very limited in what they can do, Jim Ellis, fire chief for Holden and Eddington, said recently.
“It takes about a year for someone to be really productive,” he said, adding that volunteers are no longer allowed to do on-the-job training as was allowed in years past.
The lengthy training sometimes takes the steam out of the enthusiasm of the volunteers, Ellis said.
Unlike the past, when people dropped what they were doing to join the bucket brigade, “it’s very rare that an employer is willing to let an employee leave” during the workday, Ellis said. And many people do not work in the towns they live and volunteer in.
Bill Reaviel, who started as an on-call firefighter in Brewer seven years ago, now is working full time.
“It took a year to a year and a half” to finish Firefighter I training, doing it mostly at night and on weekends, he said. “It’s a big commitment.”
The former U.S. Marine said he loves his work, the camaraderie with fellow firefighters and serving the community.
Nationally, numbers are dropping drastically, according to the May 2007 report Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges and Solutions, a study sponsored by NVFC and the U.S. Fire Administration.
“Many fire departments across the nation today are experiencing more difficulty with recruiting and retaining members than ever before,” the report’s introduction states. Later, it says, “On a regional level, the northeast has seen the greatest decline in volunteers because it has traditionally been protected by volunteers more than other regions.”
Fire Chief Mike Spencer of the Orrington Fire and Rescue Department said recently that trainees must consider several factors when they decide to become a firefighter.
“It’s a lot of work and requires a lot of dedication and a lot of time away from your family,” he said. “When they [trainees] work a full week, it’s hard to get them to attend” weekend classes.
“By the time we get done with half a year of training, half [of the trainees] will be gone,” Bronson said.
With more than 70 percent of the country covered by volunteer fire departments, the drop in the numbers is a reason for concern, said William St. Michel, Durham fire chief and Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association president.
“Our rosters are starting to shrink,” he said. “It’s something that actually is being experienced nationwide.”
For example, in Durham, “I typically would bring in five [recruits] and lose one,” St. Michel said. “Now I bring in five and lose four. The training requirements are definitely one of the big things. People’s lifestyles and economics also play a big role.”
Durham, Orrington, Eddington, Holden and most other small departments statewide have paid on-call volunteers and the chief is the lone full-time person. Firefighters in these departments are considered part-time municipal employees.
Gone are the days when uncle Joe could just throw on a fireman’s hat and jump behind the wheel of a firetruck to help out, St. Michel said.
“There are even requirements for the drivers,” he said. “It definitely hampers things, but at the same [time] you want to provide your community a level of service.”
All the extra training means only the best of the best show up at fires, and they are ready to work the blaze effectively, Bronson said.
“If we send a Brewer truck to a fire, they’re all highly trained and ready to work,” he said.
In his January 2009 monthly report, Bronson said, “We will be advertising for a fresh recruit class for part-time jobs in early 2009, but we will not drop our standards to fill the class.”
Rural departments supply fire coverage to the majority of the nation and much of Maine. There are six full-time fire departments in Maine, and the rest are volunteer or a combination.
Portland’s full-time fire department with 230 personnel in eight stations is the largest. Bangor with 88 firefighters ranks second, and Lewiston-Auburn is next with 75.
Public education and stricter building codes in the United States have reduced the number of actual fires in recent years, but the workload for departments has increased because many of them took on emergency medical service work in the 1970s and 1980s.
For example, the number of calls that Brewer responds to has jumped nearly 500 percent in the last decade, Bronson said. Brewer responded to 3,243 calls during 2008, according to his January 2009 monthly report.
“When we look at the fact that prior to the year 2000 we had fewer than 500 calls a year, this is big growth. The growth in 2008 alone is huge. 2007 ended with 2,748 calls so we increased by 500 calls in 2008,” it states. “Needless to say, the far majority of these were medical calls. In fact, in 2008, 89 percent of all our calls were medical.”
The increase in call volume also means “we need more people every day, not just occasionally, so part-time personnel can’t keep up,” Bronson said.
Nowadays, fire departments respond to every call from the routine to the bizarre, from chimney fires to suicide attempts to popcorn burning in the microwave. They respond to reports of strange odors, to calls to rescue animals and to assist women in labor.
“The fire department is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Ellis said. “It’s an open commitment. That’s a tough commitment.”
The Orono Fire Department, which in four years went from 20-25 on-call firefighters to two, is turning to University of Maine students for help as it has in previous years.
Orono fire chief Buddy Webb said student firefighters frequently have training from their hometowns, which reduces the amount of training Orono needs to provide them.
“I think we’ll have some luck with the students,” Webb said. “We wouldn’t have them in the summer, but we can get by in the summer when it’s a little bit slower.”
The sticking point, however, is the turnover. Students presumably leave Orono every four years, taking their training with them.
Meanwhile, Beers, who has earned her emergency medical technician certificate but not her Firefighter I credentials, responds to all the calls in Passadumkeag that she can.
“I want to help out my town,” she said. Of the firefighter training, she said, “It’s very intensive, and I don’t have the time right now.” At fires, “I could do everything but go inside the burning building.”
Reporter Jessica Bloch contributed to this story.