FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — A week after separate fires killed two women in this small town, the Fort Fairfield Fire Department is back to work. And while the department is still recuperating from the fallout of the two fires, officials said they have a support system within their community thousands-strong.
Fires on Densmore Road in Fort Fairfield on Jan. 13 and Sam Everett Road on Jan. 14 caused the deaths of 90-year-old Dawn Findlen and 39-year-old Hope Phillips, respectively. Fort Fairfield firefighters worked long hours to contain the flames, whose causes are currently unknown.
Fort Fairfield Fire Chief Vince Baldwin said that everyone within the department has counseling and support services available through its employee assistance programs. They have also received vital support from neighboring fire departments and the tight-knit Fort Fairfield community.
Baldwin said his department held a critical incident stress debriefing on Saturday, inviting all personnel involved in fighting the flames to come talk about their experiences. Baldwin said there were 18 who attended from various departments.
“That’s one of the first things we do as a department in incidents like this when there are fatalities,” Baldwin said. “It’s kind of a counseling session for first responders.”
Studies have shown that there is a correlation between involvement in fatal incidents and post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among firefighters.
Mary-Helena McInerney is a counselor at County Behavioral Medicine in Presque Isle who has treated first-responders, including firefighters.
McInerney said that distressing experiences encountered by first-responders can lead to development of acute stress disorder. If symptoms continue after six months, the diagnosis changes to the more commonly known post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those affected by both disorders experience a number of emotional responses, including feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed by emotions. They could also have an increased heart rate and difficulty breathing.
McInerney said many victims continuously go over the traumatic experience they witnessed in their heads, making it more difficult to focus and perform daily tasks.
She said the level and length of symptoms ultimately depends on the resilience of the person affected. She said the training firefighters are given to deal with traumatic situations will increase their ability to deal with the trauma going forward.
“Hopefully, with training, the firefighters will have that resiliency that will allow them to make it through this,” McInerney said.
Baldwin said there are 12 firefighters in his department. While the department pays them for their work, they are all part time. He said some even worked their regular jobs between working fire department shifts to contain the flames last week.
Baldwin said that the efforts of firefighters from North Lakes and the Easton fire departments on Thursday was immeasurable. The departments provided help with maintenance work in the aftermath of the fires.
Noting that North Lakes had not even been involved in containing the fire, he said it showed “comradery” between departments during a difficult time.
Baldwin, who has been fire chief for three years after a long history with the Presque Isle Fire Department, said these were the first fatal fires of his tenure. It was not the first fatal incident under his watch. He said the last one that required a debriefing was when a 14-year-old boy drowned in the Aroostook River in 2017.
Baldwin said Fort Fairfield residents had given the department high levels of verbal support since the first fire on Monday. He said such a response is typical in fatal incidents, after which people tend to be less critical than in non-fatal ones.
“When you’re dealing with a loss of life, you generally have very little negativity in the community,” Baldwin said.
He said his department was fine physically, but he noted that many of his firefighters worked long hours last week, both to subdue the flames and in the aftermath.
While much of the staff got to sleep after the Densmore Road fire on Jan. 13, the Sam Everett Road fire on Jan. 14, called in at 6:15 p.m., required several hours into the night to extinguish.
Baldwin said that he was awake for 39 straight hours during this period. While he admitted the long and difficult hours needed to fight the flames wasn’t easy, he said, but this is the role that the department plays within the community.
Fort Fairfield Police Chief Shawn Newell said town staff are continuing to take active measures to ensure that all involved are assisted.
Newell noted that along with the fire department, the police and public works departments in Fort Fairfield were directly involved in responding to the incidents. While public works assisted in the clean-up of the wreckage, police restricted public access to the fires by blocking off roads.
Newell said that Fort Fairfield Town Manager Andrea Powers was keeping a close watch on the “health and welfare” of city employees.
“We will continue to look after our volunteer firefighters and staff and offer any services needed to help and protect the welfare of our employees,” Newell said.
Baldwin said he was most thankful for the Maine Fire Marshal’s Office, which sent a five-person team to investigate, as well as all the neighboring departments that helped control the fires, including the Presque Isle, Easton and Caribou fire departments.
“These firefighters worked last week for a lot of hours, a lot of time,” Baldwin said. “But that’s what it takes.”