PI officials hope potential grant will prevent staff cuts

Posted Sept. 02, 2012, at 3:17 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Despite protest from a significant number of residents, the City Council last December passed a resolve to reduce the full-time staff at the Presque Isle Fire Department from four to three people per shift effective in January 2013.

In the past few months, however, the city has begun to examine that decision more closely. At the same time, the PIFD is hoping to receive a grant that would postpone the cuts for at least the next two years.

The changes to the fire department were made as part of the council passing the city budget for 2012. The council proposed supplementing the three man crews with on-call firefighters.

Under current four-man shifts, individual firefighters are trained to operate specific vehicles and equipment. With three-man shifts, however, on-call firefighters would have to be trained to operate all trucks and equipment. Firefighters would also be discouraged from having second jobs so they can be available to respond to fires.

During a council meeting in July, the council was presented with a fire mitigation report drafted to offer suggestions on how to lessen challenges at the department if staffing levels drop from four per shift to three.

Deputy City Manager Martin Puckett appeared before the council to describe several options listed in the report.

From that discussion, councilors said that they were interested in exploring some of the recommendations, including pursuing a live-in student program targeting college students studying fire science or a similar program. The cost to implement it would be $15,000-$30,000 and it would take one to two months. They also will consider offering longevity rewards such as bonuses or increases in pay to attract more volunteers and possibly retain current ones. The cost to implement that would be $10,000-$15,000 and would take one to two months. In concert with that, they are interested in hiring summer help and paying per diems to fill sick and vacation times. The cost to implement that would be $35,000-$40,000 and would take one to three months.

According to Fire Chief Darrell White, his department has 21 volunteers, with 12 of those having basic fire school training. Firefighters currently follow a “2 in, 2 out” rule, which mandates that firefighters never go into a dangerous situation in a fire or rescue incident alone. Two enter the burning structure while two remain outside ready to help in case of an emergency. White said that in order to comply with the rule, all four people must be certified to use a self-contained breathing apparatus. The chief said that it takes a minimum of one and a half years to achieve the certification, adding that because the volunteer has to give up a lot of time to attend classes, a number of them are unable to attain the certification.

Councilors have been criticized for their decision by a number of residents fearful of the impact of cutting back on the number of firefighters.

During the July meeting, city resident Brent Andersen, said that he was concerned about reducing the staffing level at the department because Presque Isle has numerous “old houses with balloon framing that is filled with new furniture.”

He said that in his opinion, relying on volunteer firefighters that have full-time jobs to consistently respond to a fire is a big gamble. He also noted that the city has a new fireworks store, and feared that inexperienced or heedless users could potentially increase fire hazards.

After receiving feedback from the community and in light of the report, councilors agreed to postpone further decisions about the fire department until next month, when they start looking at next year’s budget.

At the same time, White told councilors late last month that the department has applied for a 2012 Safer Grant. If the department receives the grant, it would help cover its expenses for two years. It would fund four positions for two years, including benefits. The city would not have to match the grant.

White said that the department also could hire another full-time officer, which White said would help decrease overtime, for the duration of the grant.

The council authorized city officials to send a letter of support for the grant.

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