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Coastal Maine towns struggling to attract volunteer firefighters

Posted April 25, 2012, at 7:52 p.m.
Last modified April 26, 2012, at 6:17 a.m.
Lorana Pierce is an EMT with the Phippsburg Volunteer Fire Department. She plans to take a nine-month paramedic course in the fall.
Lorana Pierce is an EMT with the Phippsburg Volunteer Fire Department. She plans to take a nine-month paramedic course in the fall.
Lorana Pierce is an EMT with the Phippsburg Volunteer Fire Department. She plans to take a nine-month paramedic course in the fall.
Lorana Pierce is an EMT with the Phippsburg Volunteer Fire Department. She plans to take a nine-month paramedic course in the fall.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Finding and retaining volunteer firefighters amid increasing training requirements and a struggling economy is not a new problem, but Rockland Assistant Fire Chief Adam Miceli said the situation is the worst he has seen in his 26 years in the fire service.

The Rockland department, though it has a round-the-clock staff of full-time firefighters, relies heavily on its cadre of volunteers when something is burning. With room in the budget for 25 volunteers who are paid a nominal sum when they’re on call, training or working at a fire scene, there are only 14 signed on.

There are a lot of factors causing that, said Miceli, and none of them have easy solutions.

“These days it’s harder to kind of hook people and get them into the department,” he said. “It’s hard for someone who’s already working to come in and put in a lot of time. It just seems like it’s been more difficult over the years to get people in and give them a good spark at the beginning.”

The reasons are myriad, according to Miceli and others. Growing training prerequisites, shifting demographics that force more people to commute to their jobs — and therefore prevent them from being available to fight fires in their hometowns — and the slack economy all are working against growing the firefighter ranks.

Joe Thomas, Maine’s acting fire marshal, said he has watched the problem grow in the past 37 years of his career.

“When I was much younger, a volunteer fire department would have one evening a week for a meeting at the fire station,” he said. “The obligations that you have to put into training these days are a lot more.”

Thomas said though there are few fire chiefs in Maine who would say they have all the volunteers they need, the problem is more pronounced in rural areas where there is a smaller pool to recruit from and in coastal towns, which tend to have higher percentages of retirees and seasonal residents.

Kennebunk Fire Chief Stephen Nichols, who is president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, said a large part of the problem is the amount of training a person needs before he or she is qualified to actually fight a fire. A mandatory firefighter 1 and 2 certification requires 244 hours of class time, plus considerable homework, and then there are more trainings in blood-borne pathogens, handling hazardous materials, driving fire equipment and a slew of other requirements through the Maine Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Standards.

“Fire doesn’t know the difference between a volunteer, call and full-time department,” said Nichols. “You have to have the right training.”

All the necessary training can take several months — and oftentimes, said Nichols, a potential volunteer has to wait weeks or months for the next firefighting course to be offered.

“There’s a job for everyone who wants to be on the fire department, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be inside a building fighting a fire [until they are trained],” he said. “Anyone who’s doing a job at a fire scene has to have training.”

Some of the training is expensive, and who pays for it varies on a town-by-town basis, according to Thomas and Nichols. Some departments pick up the entire cost through their municipal budgets or grants; others expect volunteers to pay up front and then be reimbursed; and in some cases, volunteers pay for the training themselves.

The coastal town of Phippsburg in Sagadahoc County faces the same challenges as any small coastal community: too many people who work out of town, or in many cases on the water, and a high percentage of retirees, said its fire chief, James Totman.

“We could use at least 10 more firefighters. It’s very bad,” said Totman. “We don’t have anyone who’s even interested in joining right now. The biggest thing is all these state mandates and all the time they want volunteers to put in. People just don’t have time … and I don’t know the answer.”

But of course there are exceptions. One of them is Lorana Pierce, who has been an emergency medical technician on Phippsburg’s rescue squad for 23 years. Pierce’s grandparents started the rescue service in Phippsburg years ago. Despite the fact she can expect little financial gain from it, Pierce is signed up for a nine-month paramedic course, followed by 150 hours of clinical training in area hospitals and with other rescue squads, which begins later this year.

“My feeling is the main reason to do it is for my town,” said Pierce, whose twin sister is also on the rescue squad. “It’s not the money I’m doing this for.”

Pierce, who makes $2 an hour for being on call, said part of the reason for taking the course now is because the training requirements are scheduled to ramp up in January 2013, which means it would take her probably two years to complete the paramedic course if she waits.

“I can’t imagine taking two years out of my life to do it,” said Pierce, who also sees a paramedic certification as a financial backup plan for her family if her husband, who is a building contractor, runs short on jobs. In that case, Pierce said she could use her certification to work per-diem for a full-time rescue squad.

Another exception to the drought of volunteers is the Searsport Fire Department, according to Capt. A.J. Koch. A few years ago, said Koch, “it was me and one other guy,” but today there are 14 volunteers on the rolls.

The key is to offer an entry-level volunteer status, he said. Rather than expect people to commit to the extensive training required and risk of being a “confined space” or hazardous materials-certified firefighter, he tells would-be volunteers that if they want to just direct traffic at a fire scene, that’s fine.

“We’ll train you to the level you want to go to,” he said.

Some volunteers want to drive the truck, some want to operate the pumps. Often, after a taste of the service, they seek more training and become more committed.

Koch, 29, began as a junior firefighter at 15. His father had been chief of the North Searsport Fire Department, which in the early 1990s was separate from the Searsport department. The junior firefighter program still helps in recruiting, he said.

Still, Koch understands the problems of maintaining a full complement of volunteers. At training sessions he hears about the recruiting struggles of some of Waldo County’s more rural departments, particularly those in the northern and western parts of the county.

Thomas, the acting fire marshal, said incentives such as this could be part of the long-term solution. Though it’s the exception and not the rule, Thomas said fire departments across Maine also are exploring and implementing nominal retirement benefits and recognition programs and working to adjust time requirements so that when personnel gather for meetings, their time is used efficiently and for multiple purposes.

Thomas said fire departments also are pooling their resources with neighboring communities when it comes to training and the purchase of equipment, and that some towns are hiring per-diem firefighters to man their stations during daytime hours.

“The point is trying to maintain protection with manpower during the most difficult time of day for most volunteers,” he said. “There are a lot of different approaches.”

The dearth of volunteers in most towns causes more problems than just emergency coverage. A town fire department’s level of training, equipment and water supply are all factors that insurance companies use to set homeowners’ insurance premiums, according to Maine Deputy of Insurance Tim Schott.

“An area with a full-time fire department will generally have a better fire protection class rating than an area served by a volunteer department, so long as there are adequate hydrants and water in the area being rated,” said Schott in a written response to questions emailed from the Bangor Daily News.

However, according to a recent report the Bureau of Insurance generated for the Maine Legislature, homeowners in the state enjoy some of the lowest insurance premiums in the nation. Maine slipped from ninth-lowest in the nation in 2007 to 11th-lowest in 2008 and 2009, which is the latest data available from report author National Association of Insurance Commissioners. In all three of those years, Maine had the lowest average premiums in New England.

Paul Leeman Jr., chief of Bristol Fire and Rescue Department in coastal Lincoln County, said the shortage of volunteers in his department likely will become worse because the average age of his firefighters is approaching 50.

“We need to take on more people and bring them up through the ranks,” he said. “There’s always a need for more and we need to bring the young ones along.”

Just then, Leeman’s pager went off, signaling that someone somewhere in Bristol was in need of emergency assistance.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go,” he told a reporter before hanging up the phone.

BDN writer Tom Groening contributed to this report.

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