Citing safety concerns, Ellsworth fire chief hoping to hire two new firefighters

Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 8:26 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The city’s fire chief plans to apply for a federal grant that would enable Ellsworth to hire two additional professional firefighters as the city — like many municipalities across Maine — struggles to maintain its roster of both full-time and on-call personnel.

Chief Richard Tupper said he is seeking roughly $235,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program to cover all costs for the two full-time firefighter positions for two years.

If successful in securing the grant, Tupper said he would hope the city could find a way to keep the two positions filled once the federal funding dries up. In fact, he said his long-term goal would be to add an additional three positions over the next five years — raising the number of full-time personnel at the department from 10 to 15.

Ellsworth, like many communities, has seen a decrease in the number of community volunteers willing or able to respond to emergency calls due to a combination of factors, including less-flexible work schedules, increasing family commitments and the amount of ongoing training required of firefighters today.

“Twenty years ago when I started, it was easy for someone to be at work … and when the tones go out, to drop everything and respond to the call,” Tupper told members of the City Council on Monday night. But times and situations have changed, he said.

Unlike many Maine towns with strictly volunteer fire or EMS departments, Ellsworth offers its nonprofessional firefighters a small stipend for responding. But Tupper said the fire department’s roster has still shrunk by 12 members since 2005 as fewer people are able to serve as “paid on-call” firefighters.

The result, he said, has been a decline in the number of personnel — both full-time and on-call — available to respond to fires. While Ellsworth has mutual aid agreements in place with surrounding towns, those all-volunteer departments face identical challenges.

“All of the departments around us and all over are experiencing the same issues,” he said on Tuesday during an interview.

During his address to the City Council, Tupper laid the case for additional full-time personnel in safety terms.

The National Fire Protection Association and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration recommend that “combination departments” such as Ellsworth’s have 11 personnel on the scene of a structure fire to handle all necessary tasks for safety reasons. But those are difficult numbers to reach, Tupper said.

“We will do what it takes to get the job done, but if we start multitasking … our safety decreases dramatically,” he said.

Right now, Ellsworth Fire Department has at least two professional firefighters on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with an additional firefighter plus administrators in during the day. Tupper said his goal is to provide 24/7 coverage with four personnel.

Council members voted unanimously to support Tupper’s request to apply for the 2-year FEMA grant. But they acknowledged that, should the city receive the grant, they will have to come up with the money in two years because dropping two full-time firefighter positions would not be a welcome move.

“It is still a good program,” said Councilor Stephen Beathem. “The reality is … you hope you have the ability to keep them in the third, fourth or fifth year to build the department.”

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