Concern over the shortage of volunteer firefighters in Maine is in the news again, this time in the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 20.
I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years. I am currently the fire chief of a fire department in York County. As a fire chief, I struggle with recruiting and retaining firefighters and emergency medical technicians, or EMTs.
The cause of this problem is rather complicated. There are several factors present. Most are demographic and societal rather than financial. Many communities in Maine have plainly outgrown the concept of a volunteer fire department.
Socioeconomic reasons. Most communities served by volunteer or call fire departments are small towns where residents work outside the community. Many of these communities don’t have rentals where single men and women or young married couples can afford to live. These are the people who may have the time, energy and desire to serve on a volunteer fire department.
Parents of young children who may have a mortgage and reside in a small town typically don’t have the available time to devote to community service. Many work multiple jobs to pay the bills. The “empty nesters” aren’t necessarily prone to become volunteer firefighters for various reasons: It is a young person’s avocation. It is physically demanding. People today have more leisure activities than they did a generation ago. The Internet, video games and on-demand cable TV have replaced a lot of social activity of past generations.
A growing demand for service. The demand for services increases each year. A generation ago, people didn’t have 911 to call when they weren’t feeling well. Today, people call the fire department for just about every problem imaginable. Public expectations of the fire service in general have changed dramatically. People call upon firefighters when they don’t know who else to call.
A demographic challenge. The demographic makeup of our state is changing rapidly. Maine has a shortage of young people to serve on volunteer fire departments. Many younger Mainers are leaving the state to find work. The recruiting pool for volunteer fire departments is shrinking. As Maine’s population ages, coupled with the fact that people are living longer, the increase in demand is only going to grow.
There is a thought by some that the increased training requirements placed on firefighters and EMTs is a deterrent to recruiting. Professional training is a necessity, though. The people of Maine should demand high-quality training for our first responders. We depend on them to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones. First responders protect us from chemicals and hazardous materials, enter our burning buildings to save our property, disentangle us from our wrecked automobiles, revive us after an overdose and hold our hand when we’re having a bad day.
If communities don’t begin to deal with this problem soon, we will be in a severe crisis in about 10 years. Small towns are not going to be able to financially sustain fleets of firefighting apparatus and the necessary equipment along with the staffing levels needed to provide proper fire protection. Cities and larger communities are also feeling the pain of increased demand on resources. The idea of using an “anchor” community to supplement service for an entire region just isn’t feasible.
Communities have several options. All require political will and very close trust and cooperation among municipalities.
One option is regionalized fire departments. Regional fire districts work in several parts of the United States. Creating regional fire districts does require detailed planning. The state and county-level governments need to encourage and support communities that combine fire departments. The departments would be staffed with a combination of full-time, part-time and on-call firefighters (sometimes referred to as paid volunteers). Small towns in Maine need to seriously consider forming regional fire districts to meet this growing demand for services.
I applaud the Maine Legislature for forming a working group to look into recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. This is just one part of a larger problem. We need to overhaul how fire protection and emergency medical services are delivered in Maine. A more efficient and sustainable method must be found. Change comes hard in Maine.
Roger S. Hooper is chief of Goodwins Mills Fire and Rescue in York County.