CALAIS, Maine — Since the days when the ringing of the fire bell brought firefighters driving horses that pulled wagons with barrels full of water, the border cities of Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, have practiced a unique mutual aid agreement.
Although the sister cities are separated by the St. Croix River and three fully staffed international border stations, when the call for help is made, all cross-border differences disappear.
“This is a vital arrangement,” St. Stephen Fire Chief Jeff Richardson said recently.
“Vital,’’ echoed his American counterpart, Calais Fire Chief Dan Carlow.
“We are considerably isolated up here,” Richardson said. “Yet we are gateway communities to both countries that encompass a major commercial route.”
The firefighters who protect these two cities are bound by geography, work and family. Many have family members on the other side of the border,l and all shop on both sides. Even their annual budgets are built on their combined needs.
“We’ve had brothers, cousins serving with each of the two departments,” Richardson said.
When the fire alarm sounds, there is no border, no separation of American and Canadian as far as the firefighters are concerned.
An example of this closeness occurred in September when the Calais Fire Department was helping at a St. Stephen structure fire. A second call came in that a Calais home was burning.
“We disconnected our hoses and went back,” Carlow said. “It turned out to be Jeff’s mom’s former home.”
“The only thing that separates us is that little river,” Carlow said, referring to the St. Croix.
Both chiefs said the agreement between Calais and St. Stephen is unique. Hundreds of communities along the U.S.-Canadia border have mutual aid agreements for fire and emergency response, but the Calais-St. Stephen fire agreement is different because it is automatic.
“Other departments wait to be called,” Carlow said. “[But] both of us automatically respond to structure fires in the other city.”
Not only does the agreement provide twice the resources for each department, it lowers business and home insurance rates for residents in the two cities.
Last year, St. Stephen responded to 150 emergency calls. Calais crossed the border for at least 14 of those. The same numbers are true in reverse, Carlow said. “On structure fires, it is all hands on board.”
“We can work seamlessly together,” Richardson said. “On February 14 we had a fire on Queensway. It was a four-apartment building, an all-day fire on a work day, and we were able to have more than 30 firefighters there.”
The backup agreement is so old that no one can remember when it started. Originally there were four departments — St. Stephen and Milltown in New Brunswick, and Calais and Millton in Maine — and they all helped each other. Before the 9/11 attacks, the cities’ fire departments weren’t allowed to have cross-border communication. But they got around that system by providing each station with radios from the other department.
The cities grew from small, sister logging towns to population centers in their regions.
“Calais is a place to shop and live,” Carlow said, “while St. Stephen has a lot more industry.”
Calais has 3,500 people, while St. Stephen has more than 5,000. Both fire departments have paid firefighters and on-call firefighters — a combination that allows for maximum response.
Crossing the border for a fire is no problem, the chiefs explained. Firefighters from both cities are vetted ahead of time with the customs and immigration services in both countries.
“We call ahead and the agents come out and wave us through,” Carlow said. “They will even clear the traffic for us.”
Calais also provides ambulance service to the Washington County town of Vanceboro. “But it is 30 miles closer to go through Canada,” Carlow said, “so we cross the border.”
“Depending on where a fire is, the Calais guys could actually beat us there,” Richardson said.
“But we’d rather not,” Carlow added, laughing.
“We are so confident in Jeff and his staff,” Carlow said. “My members have no qualms about putting their lives in Jeff’s hands.”
Between them, Carlow and Richardson share 67 years of firefighting experience. They said there is no jealousy between the two departments, an attitude they work hard to foster.
“You just put your pride in your back pocket and realize the value of the whole rather than the two halves,” Carlow said.
“You can see four firefighters on a hose,” Richardson said, “and two will be from Calais and two will be from St. Stephen. We cross-train all the time so you’ll never know the difference.”
Both departments are very familiar with various structures such as churches, factories and mills on both sides of the border that if burning would require massive firefighting efforts.
“There is a key benefit to daytime coverage,” Richardson said, “when the number of available firefighters is at its lowest. Through our agreement, we double our response.”
Richardson and Carlow said firefighting is not like joining other community service clubs.
“If you don’t show up for a community event, someone else has to work a little harder,” Richardson said. “In the fire service, a poor response can mean the loss of property or lives. So much training is now involved, a lot of people work out of town — there are a lot of reasons that recruitment is down.”
Both chiefs said, however, that interest is kept high when a department is active. By providing shared coverage, both departments are kept busier. Because the Calais-St. Stephen crossings are so busy, the departments often respond to hazardous material leaks.
“If a load shifts en route, when they stop at the border, that is where they leak,” Carlow said.
The chiefs also said they plan major purchases based on each other’s assets, which again saves money for both cities. “We would actually need more tankers and pumpers without them,” Richardson said. “Calais also has a ladder truck, which we do not.”
“We’d all love to have more resources, but as far as cooperation, we’ve never seen it any better,” Carlow said.
Outside of firefighting, many members of both departments socialize with each other.
“We have curling teams,’’ Carlow admitted, but then began to laugh. “Well, they have a curling team. We put together a limping team.”