AUGUSTA, Maine — As uniformed crews in full salute lined a cordoned-off road Saturday morning, officials memorialized three Maine firefighters who died during active duty while making pleas for stronger safety measures for first responders.
The annual Maine State Firefighters Memorial Service, held by the Maine State Federation of Firefighters during National Fire Prevention Week, carried greater significance this year after the deaths of three firefighters — Capt. Joel Barnes of Berwick, Chief Gary Sacco of Oxford and Capt. Michael Bell of Farmington.
Roughly 200 attendees — more than half of them Maine firefighters, color guards and drum corps — made up the abnormally high attendance as a ceremony at Firefighters Memorial in Capitol Park spilled into the street.
“The situation has gotten worse for us,” State Fire Marshal Joseph E. Thomas said. “We are seeing more deaths to our comrades.”
Thomas said that firefighters face more danger today than in previous generations, and fewer younger people are joining the ranks. He cited a study that asserted that the time between when a building fire starts and a “flashover” — the ignition point of combustible materials — had significantly decreased over the years. He attributed the change to an increase of flammable smart devices and electronics.
Thomas cited two recent studies done by the National Institute for Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratory that suggested that “modern furnishings that utilize much synthetic material and plastics allow flashover to occur much quicker than legacy material furnishings that were made from more natural type materials,” reducing the window of time a firefighter can safely quell the flames.
“The dangers of fire service have changed, and fire departments need to change with it,” Thomas said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was one of numerous speakers at the ceremony, which contemplated the challenges of the vocation and honored the 22 Maine firefighters who died in the past year, with a special ceremony for Barnes, Sacco and Bell.
“We face some real challenges in the state where most of our firefighters are staffed by volunteers,” Collins said. The senator introduced legislation in August that would attempt to address a national firefighter shortage by changing IRS rules that restrict towns from providing retirement benefits to volunteer firefighters.
“We’re all aware that we are getting older and our numbers are dwindling,” Liberty Fire Chief Bill Gillespie said.
State firefighting officials fought back tears during the ceremony, which followed less than three weeks after an explosion in a building that was home to a Farmington nonprofit injured seven and took the life of Bell, 68, who had worked for the Farmington Fire Department for more than 30 years. State and federal officials determined that a propane leak was the cause of the explosion.
“We’re going to rise above this,” said Farmington Deputy Chief Tim Hardy, who was injured during the explosion. “It’s been overwhelming the support that we’ve had in Farmington, not just throughout the state but the whole country.”
Hardy said the service was a community reminder to take firefighter safety seriously. Hardy’s son, also in the Farmington Fire Department, sustained injuries in the blast and is still hospitalized.
Through spokespeople, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills both issued statements. Mills proclaimed Oct. 5, 2019, as Firefighter’s Recognition Day.
“Like all first responders, Maine’s firefighters courageously put their lives at risk every day to protect us and ensure our safety,” Mills said. “Too many times this year, our firefighters have laid down their lives in the line of duty and we remain forever grateful for their sacrifice.”