BROOKS, Maine — During the month of February, the Brooks Volunteer Fire Department battled two major structure fires, one of which sent the homeowner to the hospital to be treated for burns.
The other fire leveled a home, despite the efforts of firefighters from 16 neighboring towns who tried their best to quell the flames while contending with bitter cold outside and thick, acrid smoke within.
These fires concerned Brooks Fire Chief Jeff Archer, but not because of their outcomes. They concern him because they both happened in the daytime — the hardest time, it turns out, to find enough firefighters to do the job.
“Folks are working,” Archer said. “We’re basically a sleeper community. But even at nighttime, you struggle.”
That’s the tough reality for volunteer fire departments all over the state of Maine. In the early 1990s, there were about 12,000 firefighters in the state, including professionals and volunteers. That number has dropped to about 8,000, and the 33 percent decrease in personnel has meant that fire departments everywhere are feeling the strain.
“The numbers are down,” Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters. “We can blame it on a lot of things. Commitments, the time to train, having two people in the household working … it would be a hell if we ever had a call when no one responds.”
His federation is working hard to try and recruit more volunteer firefighters, and to promote state legislation that aims to support the firefighters. L.D. 164, An Act To Establish the Maine Length of Service Award Program, would create the framework for a statewide pension-type program under which volunteers such as firefighters or emergency medical service providers eventually would receive a pension. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, unenrolled, of Friendship, would pay for the program through a tax on consumer fireworks.
“It’s an incentive to keep firefighters in local communities,” Desmond said.
That’s critical, said Archer and Chief Bill Gillespie of the Liberty Volunteer Fire Department, adding that first you have to get them there.
“We’re at a crisis point, truthfully, in terms of not having the manpower,” Archer said. “Each of our departments could use 30-40 percent more people.”
They said that this shortage of firefighters is why fire departments from 16 different communities from all around Waldo County were called to help battle the destructive house fire in Brooks on Wednesday, Feb. 11.
Archer and Gillespie are enthusiastic about serving their communities in ways as large as working to save lives and property by fighting fires and as small as responding to the 2 a.m. call from a “little old lady” who could not make her smoke detector stop beeping.
“We don’t say no,” Archer said. “We MacGyver it. We make it happen.”
But they’re also practical about realities that make it harder to recruit enough men and women to be part of the crew.
“We’re not fostering volunteerism as much as we did when I was growing up,” Gillespie said. “My parents preached to us to always give back.”
A decline in volunteerism may be part of the problem, but they said it is compounded by the ever-increasing training requirements that cause volunteer firefighters to spend more time away from their homes and families. Some volunteers also have a hard time getting permission from their employers to leave in the middle of the day to respond to an emergency call.
But the chiefs are hopeful that they will be able to find some more good men and women who are interested in giving back in a powerful way.
“The public doesn’t realize that every call we get, we leave the comfort of our homes and go into danger,” Archer said. “We leave our families, drop what we’re doing, put our helmets on and go to work.”