OWLS HEAD, Maine — Fire Chief Frank Ross became a volunteer firefighter 37 years ago.
For Ross, it was the natural path to take.
“I figured that’s what we do,” he said.
Times have changed, not just in Owls Head, but throughout the country as volunteer fire departments struggle to find people to respond to car crashes, fires and other public safety emergencies.
There are times during the day when only two or three Owls Head Fire Department members are available to take on calls. This necessitates calls for mutual aid from nearby towns such as Rockland, Thomaston, St. George and South Thomaston.
Ross said the department is reaching out to recruit new members.
When Ross joined the department there were 47 members. Now there are only 28 members, and many of them work out of town and are not available for day calls. The Owls Head department responds to an average of 30 calls a year.
The chief understands that people lead busy lives and those who are parents are strapped for time. But the community needs people to step up.
“You’re helping your neighbor. There’s a lot of self satisfaction in giving a helping hand,” he said.
People as young as 16 can join the junior firefighter program. To fight fires you must be 18-years-old, the chief said.
There is no upper age limit, although volunteers must be physically fit and able to perform certain tasks.
The department’s medical officer, Eliott Scott, was 47 years old when he joined in 2005.
While working as an electronic technician, he got into a conversation with co-workers who were volunteer firefighters. “I was listening to them and they were so convincing on the importance of volunteering,” Scott said. He knew he wanted to give back to the community and decided to join.
Ross said demographics is another reason for the decline in volunteers. There are more retirees and fewer young families in town, which is where most members come from.
But the job is not for the weak willed. Before a member can go inside a burning building, 75 hours of training is required, the chief said. Training is offered within the department and also by an association of local departments.
Until those 75 hours are complete, new members can perform duties such as driving trucks, manning hoses outside the buildings or shuttling equipment for other members.
This summer, the department is waging a public relations campaign to recruit new members. A banner depicting a firefighter similar to the “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster is being displayed during annual parades such as the Fourth of July celebration in Thomaston and the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.
A poster has been put up at the town office and members are using word of mouth to find recruits.