HARPSWELL, Maine — One afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s Day 2015 fire destroyed a garage on Lowell Cove on Orr’s Island before spreading into the attached 165-year-old home.
At the same time, firefighters were battling a second blaze on the tiny island, right around the corner from the fire station, according to Ben Wallace Jr., then chief of nearby Cundy’s Harbor Fire Department and now also chief of the Orr’s and Bailey Island Fire Department.
Assistance from crews in Brunswick, a town that operates a full municipal fire department, saved the two houses — though the Lowell Cove home suffered extensive damage.
Like many small Maine communities, Harpswell depends on volunteer firefighters. The northern Cumberland County town made up of a peninsula and string of islands for decades has operated three volunteer fire departments.
Now all are struggling to recruit members and to ensure residents and their homes are safe, particularly during the day, when firefighters are at their full-time jobs, often out of town.
To that end, a Fire and Rescue Planning Committee has drafted an ordinance that, if approved, would take a first step toward creating a municipal fire department. Voters will consider approving the ordinance, along with several others funding the initiative, at their annual town meeting on March 11.
If approved, the ordinance would authorize the town to hire two firefighters to assist the three separate volunteer departments, which would each continue to elect its own chief. When a municipal firefighter responds to a call, they would serve under the direction of that chief.
“We’re looking specifically at providing people Monday through Friday in the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. timeframe,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said Tuesday. “That seems to be the vulnerable time when we may not have enough firefighters in town.”
Voters will also be asked whether the town should spend $124,800 on the municipal employees, including $87,260 to pay two per-diem firefighters and $27,500 to hire a part-time “fire administrator” to schedule the firefighters, who would report directly to the chief of the volunteer department in command at a particular fire, according to Wallace.
The “somewhat unique” position was proposed after the committee last fall proposed that the town hire a single municipal fire chief to work with the three volunteer departments, but the three departments wanted to keep their own chiefs, Eiane said.
With a Mid Coast Parkview Hospital paramedic based on Mountain Road in Harpswell 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Wallace said the proposal would staff two “interior-qualified” firefighters — those trained to battle a structure fire from inside the building. However, there is some discussion about whether they would need to be qualified emergency medical technicians.
The town in April 2016 established the Fire and Rescue Planning Committee, which includes Wallace, as chief of two departments; Harpswell Neck Fire Chief David Mercier and Rescue Chief Gail Hart; selectmen Kevin Johnson and Rick Daniel; and members of two boards.
According to an Oct. 13, 2016, progress report by the committee, Mercier had “informed the town that it will have difficulty providing sufficient fire services during daylight hours within three years.”
The committee said an aging population, lack of affordable housing for young families, commuting distances and the increased mandatory training requirements for volunteer firefighters contributed to a volunteer shortage.
“The departments realized it wasn’t unique to Harpswell Neck,” Wallace said. “At any time, membership and participation goes up and down. There was a period when Orr’s and Bailey Island [Fire Department] only had one EMT on the whole roster.”
Wallace, full-time lieutenant with the Portland Fire Department who has served as chief of the Cundy’s Harbor Fire Department for more than 10 years, also became chief of the Orr’s and Bailey Islands department in April, when no one on the island had the experience to succeed the former chief.
Wallace said a quick poll of the two departments he leads showed a number of Harpswell firefighters interested in the positions per diem, and he said with per diem firefighters in area towns, including Topsham and Freeport, he hopes to find an adequate pool of willing local employees.
Town meeting voters will also consider whether they want to approve spending $100,000 to plan a centralized fire station on Mountain Road, though Eiane said Tuesday that members of each volunteer department “really like the three fire department locations and may not feel the need to move as quickly on a centralized concept for a building.”
The proposed ordinance was scheduled to be presented to the three fire departments Tuesday evening, and selectmen can make changes before signing the warrant on March 2.
Wallace said volunteer firefighters initially were concerned that the municipal firefighters would replace them.
“Whenever change happens, it’s difficult — big time — to get your head around it,” he said. “This won’t work without volunteers. Two people isn’t enough to put out a fire. This is just to make sure we can handle a response — carbon monoxide alarms, fire alarms — without the volunteers having to drop everything. It takes some of the pressure off [volunteers] so when we really need them, they’re there.”
Wallace said he hopes to have the positions staffed by July 1 of this year, though, he said, “we still have a great deal of work to do.”