The system small Maine communities use to back-stop each other’s fire departments is called mutual aid. If one department is fighting a big structure fire, some nearby departments will send equipment and firefighters to help. Other departments will move their trucks nearer to the towns who are assisting, just in case a fire is reported in the assisting towns. It’s a magnanimous and sensible solution to a deadly serious problem.
But fire departments, especially those in small rural towns, are facing a problem for which there is no such elegant fix. Increasingly, departments that rely on volunteer firefighters are unable to recruit enough young men and women to serve. The reasons are easy to surmise. More and more people live in one town but work elsewhere, so if a call comes in during the work day, the department has a hard time fielding a complement of firefighters. And for a variety of reasons, men and women in their 20s and 30s have less time to devote to activities outside of work and family.
And sadly, the spirit of public service that has sustained Maine’s small town way of life has flagged in recent decades.
Jeffrey Cammack, Bangor’s fire chief and president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, says another factor has made it difficult to retain volunteer firefighters. Fifteen to 20 years ago, firefighters may have attended training sessions once or twice a month. Now, stricter regulations mean they must attend a training at least once a week, he said. It becomes a demanding burden.
In addition, the work has changed. Most departments, those that have full-time staff and those that rely on volunteers, expect their crews to have some EMS training. Because of smoke detectors and stricter fire safety codes, departments are seeing fewer structure fires. Many young men are enticed by the challenge and … well, thrill of fighting a blaze. Less glamorous is the emergency medical response work that makes up the bulk of their calls, the chief said.
A recent episode of the issues show “Talk of the Towns” on WERU-FM radio tackled the challenges rural departments face, with chiefs from Blue Hill, Mount Desert and Bar Harbor discussing the matter and taking phone calls. Blue Hill Fire Chief Dennis Robertson acknowledged the recruitment and retention problem, saying younger volunteers can’t begin to serve as full-fledged firefighters until they are 18, and many then leave for college.
“To say we’re fossilizing would be to put it very gracefully,” he said.
Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender and Bar Harbor Assistant Chief Matt Bartlett echoed the problems cited by Chief Cammack. The men said a volunteer must complete traffic control training before he or she can direct vehicles away from a fire scene.
Expanding the mutual aid concept may provide an answer. Towns can create regional pools of volunteers, or the state might craft a standard volunteer firefighter certification so a Blue Hill firefighter could respond to a call in Stonington, if that was where he or she worked. And the men and women who do volunteer must not be shy about extolling the virtues of public service.