May 26, 2020
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Harpswell hires a pro in bid to keep its volunteer fire departments alive

Beth Brogan | BDN
Beth Brogan | BDN
Sheep Island in the New Meadows River is part of the area manned by the Harpswell Neck Fire Department.

When David Mercier, chief of the Harpswell Neck Fire Department, told town officials last year that volunteer firefighters on the town’s three departments were so sparse, he couldn’t guarantee anyone would be around to fight the flames should a fire ignite on a weekday, the Board of Selectmen took action.

“He put the town on notice that they had to come up with something to try to fill that,” Ben Wallace Jr., chief of the town’s other two fire departments, Cundy’s Harbor and Orr’s and Bailey islands, said on July 24.

In March, residents voted at the annual town meeting to fund the position of fire administrator and two per diem firefighters, and a committee including fire chiefs and selectmen drafted a job description for the former position.

Last month, Arthur Howe III started as Harpswell’s new fire administrator tasked, among other things, with hiring, managing and integrating two full-time per diem municipal firefighters who will support the Cundy’s Harbor, Harpswell Neck and Orrs and Bailey Islands fire departments.

Howe said that his job will evolve in coming months — including assuming the position of emergency management agent in January — and will eventually include planning for a new central fire station in a spot accessible from all of the town’s peninsulas and islands.

The three new positions are designed to prevent emergencies such as the one during the 2015 Christmas season, when a home on Lowell Cove was seriously damaged just as firefighters battled a second blaze on Orr’s Island.

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.

Howe, of South Portland, is a graduate of Dartmouth College, holds a master’s in public administration from the University of New Haven, and is founder and president of Howe Safety Services, a fire safety and codes consulting business, according to his resume.

He arrives with decades of experience in fire safety, serving previously as coordinator of the Topsfield (Massachusetts) Regional Medical Reserve Corps, fire chief and emergency management director for the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and battalion chief for the West Hartford (Connecticut) Fire Department, where he served for 22 years.

Howe also served until March 2017 as administrator for Portland’s housing safety office, overseeing fire and safety inspections of 5,000 properties.

According to a job description, the position will also be responsible for administrative duties such as record-keeping and standards compliance. Howe also will work two shifts a week as a firefighter. He will also assist the three volunteer fire companies in recruiting new members and assist with training, among other responsibilities.

He will earn $57,000 annually. He will receive a $2,000 increase in January when his job description expands.

Wallace said he’s “absolutely” optimistic that a fire administrator for the entire town will benefit all departments, and all residents.

Howe said he knows the three departments have operated independently for years, but said Mercier and Wallace are already working to integrate policies, equipment and communications.

“From what I can foresee, there will always be three separate departments, but they’re starting to blend, if you will, and work cooperatively in a way that they may not have historically.”

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