NEWBURGH, Maine — The Newburgh Volunteer Fire Department has two pumper trucks, a tanker, an ambulance and a truck with an air unit to refill oxygen bottles. What’s often missing are firefighters.
Typical of most small towns in Maine, Newburgh has an all-volunteer fire department. The volunteers work regular jobs that are mostly located away from town.
When a fire or other emergency occurs, the firefighters are called away from their jobs, their family or their sleep to help members of the community. Newburgh firefighters traditionally haven’t been paid. This year, Chief Glen Williamson is hoping to change that.
He recently asked the budget committee and board of selectmen to place $25,000 on the town warrant so it could be voted on during the town meeting on March 9. The $25,000 would pay his 25 member crew of firefighters, EMS personnel, fire chief, assistant fire chief and assistant rescue chief.
Instead, the firemen compensation requested by Williamson was cut to $2,692 and fire responders compensation was cut to $3,768 in separate articles. It would come out to between $100 and $200 per crew member per year depending on number of hours, said Williamson. The budget committee and selectmen recommend Williamson be paid $4,306, a $1,300 raise. The assistant fire chief would get $2,133 and the assistant rescue chief $1,077, according to the town meeting warrant.
“For even the people that put in 50 hours, $200 is kind of a slap in the face,” said Williamson, adding that some members put in as many as 1,500 hours a year for the department. “Our selectmen are getting [$2,000 apiece per year] and they put in fewer hours. Everybody in town gets paid except for the firemen.”
Williamson contends that his crew sacrifices more than just their time for the town, but also pay their own fuel costs to go to the scene and lose wages from cutting out of work early. Volunteer firefighters are required to have the same amount of training as full-time paid firefighters, as well.
Carmel Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Azevedo is sympathetic to Williamson’s situation.
Azevedo said his 25-person volunteer crew gets compensated and $19,000 is set aside in order to pay the firefighters for their efforts. He uses a point system so that the money is divided fairly.
“For every call, it’s $8 [paid to each person],” said Azevedo. “It doesn’t even pay enough for gas for these guys to drive to the station.”
Carmel handles about 200 calls per year, he said. Williamson said Newburgh handled 43 fire calls last year and had 84 rescue calls.
Levant Fire Chief Mark McKay said his department handles between 350 and 400 calls each year and sets aside $16,500 for his 25-person volunteer group.
Levant also faces the challenge of getting volunteers to leave their jobs to report to a scene.
“On my crew, 30 percent of them are essential to work and can’t be late for work,” said Azevedo. “The rest, if you’re working in Bangor, it’s not worth it to leave. A lot of these towns are going physically uncovered for 911.”
Williamson said he’s mostly upset because his $25,000 request won’t appear in the town warrant, but the recommendations from the budget committee and selectmen will.
“So my thing is: put it to the town. See what the town wants,” said Williamson. “If the town says they only want to pay firemen $100 or $200, that’s fine. I can live with that. But because eight or nine people up there decided they didn’t want to put [my figure in the warrant], there’s nothing I can do about.”
Stanley “Skip” Smith, chairman of the board of selectmen, said there’s plenty Williamson can do.
“It’ll be up to him to stand up in front of the town [at the town meeting] as the fire chief and sell his package,” said Smith.
Because there is no amount listed in the warrant article, the number the budget committee and selectmen listed can be raised or lowered by a vote from the town during the town meeting, said Smith.
Smith, a former firefighter himself, said the committee and board decided that going from no pay to $25,000 for the volunteer firefighters “was too much money at once to throw at the town’s people,” and that’s why it was lowered.
Instead, by starting with a lower figure, the board could raise it more and more every year.
“They’re volunteers and $100 is better than no dollars,” said Smith. “We felt it was a progressive thing.”
Williamson, Azevedo and Smith all agree that volunteers for fire departments are becoming harder to find.
“The generation that volunteered is slowly phasing out and the generation coming in doesn’t do it for nothing,” said Azevedo.