ELLSWORTH, Maine — The city hopes to beef up its firefighting force and is looking for federal grant funds that would allow the fire department to add two full-time firefighters.
Fire Chief Jonathan Marshall has filed an application for a SAFER grant that would fund the two positions for two years. The city would have to provide funds for a third year as part of the grants. After that, the positions would become permanent.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency and is designed to help fire departments increase the number of trained “front line” firefighters, according to the FEMA Web site. City councilors authorized the application on Monday.
Funding two firefighters, including benefits, for three years will cost an estimated $315,000, Marshall said. The grant would cover approximately $210,000 of that amount.
The city received a SAFER grant in 2007, which added one full-time firefighter to the force. According to Marshall, that brought to eight the number of firefighters assigned specifically to firefighting duties and allowed the department to fully staff the station during its busiest times.
About 46 percent of all calls to the department come between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, he said.
“We now have four people on Monday through Friday during the daytime,” Marshall said. “We’ve filled that gap during our busiest time.”
The new grant funds would target the less busy times during the night and on weekends. Currently, there are just two firefighters on duty at the station during the nights and weekends, he said.
Hiring two additional firefighters would allow the department to have a three-person crew at the fire station 24 hours a day, making it easier to respond quickly with the manpower necessary to fight a fire.
“With three people on duty, an engine can leave the station and we’ll know we have at least two firefighters who can get off the truck ready to go to work when they arrive,” he said.
There are strict rules that govern when firefighters can enter a burning building — what Marshall called the “two-in, two-out” rule. That requires that there be at least four firefighters certified for interior attacks on scene before a two-person team enters the building.
“They have to work as a team,” he said. “You have to have the two [firefighters] outside for backup if something happens and to cover their backs while they’re in there.”
There also are National Fire Protection Association standards that call for departments to be able to have at least six people at the scene within 14 minutes of a call. Ellsworth has a volunteer force of about 25 firefighters, more than half of them certified in interior attacks. But it is getting more difficult to find volunteer recruits, and the demands of serving the city, which is a service center community, continue to increase.
“We’re providing the same level of service as a community of about 25- or 30,000, because of the stores and the other buildings because we are a service center,” Marshall said. “But we only have a tax base of around 7,400 people.”
The grant, Marshall said, will provide the initial funding to expand the department so that it can continue to meet those fire safety requirements and guidelines.
Marshall said he probably won’t know if the city will receive the grant at least until this summer. If the application is approved, the city will have 90 days to advertise, interview and hire the new firefighters. It likely will be fall at the earliest before those firefighters would begin work, he said.
Meanwhile, the city also will consider increasing its level of emergency medical response to provide first responder medical service. The fire department does not intend to compete with the private company that provides ambulance service in the city, and would not be looking to purchase an ambulance.
“A lot of departments do first responder,” Marshall said. “We don’t want to compete with a private company or to hurt that business. But there are times when they can be overwhelmed. We could provide backup for County Ambulance to ensure that, if it’s needed, we have an extra set of hands available.”
The department already has several firefighters who have different levels of EMS training and the trucks carry emergency medical equipment. The department, however, is not licensed as first responders. If the city opts to become a first responder, Marshall said, the department would need to ensure that firefighters had the proper training to provide the service 24-7.
Councilors and firefighters will meet in a workshop session in the coming months to discuss the issue further.