Camden Fire Chief requests additional full-time firefighter position
Camden — Camden Budget Committee members voted April 13 to add a full-time firefighter position, as they finalized recommendations on the $8.25 million municipal budget proposed for 2017-18.
The firefighter position, requested by Fire Chief Chris Farley, adds $60,240 in spending to the budget recommended by Interim Town Manager Roberta Smith. Smith said she trimmed the additional firefighter position, along with many other department manager requests, to reduce the budget increase to just below 5 percent over the 2016-17 budget. The increase comes to 6 percent with the added position.
In backing Farley's request, Budget Committee members cited the fire chief's rationale for adding another full-time position, and his expertise. Other factors cited were the small impact the additional position would have on the tax bill of an average property, as well as an expected increase in the town's valuation, which should hold down the tax rate.
Farley explained April 14 that including himself, Matt Heath and Andrew Lowe, the Camden Fire Department has three full-time positions. The additional full-time position will provide the Fire Department more staff coverage during the day, when the highest number of fire calls come in, and there are fewer volunteer on-call firefighters available.
Farley said volunteer firefighters are increasingly difficult to recruit and retain, and that many either work outside of Camden during the day or have jobs they cannot easily leave for a fire call.
"We continue to try and staff a fire department on a generations-old model of on-call volunteer firefighters responding to fire calls," Farley said. "That model relies on local businesses letting their employees go, to staff a fire department during the day."
Camden has changed in the nine years he has been fire chief, Farley said, but the change has been even greater over the past few decades. Before the closure in the 1980s of the Knox Mill, across the street from the Fire Department, "The mill would let their employees who were employed by the Fire Department go during the day," Farley said. "It used to be that they could send the whole fleet of trucks out of here within three minutes. I'm told they used to literally jump out of the windows of the mill, come across the street, get on trucks and go to calls."
"The mill isn't across the street anymore," he said. "It's condos. So those people aren't there."
Back then, Farley said, the fire horn used to go off on the top of the building. "Now it's a pager or a cellphone. Now, there are fewer people who work in town, and fewer employers who can let their workers go during the day."
Camden is an older community, and has the type of businesses in the downtown area that can't let employees go to a fire call during the day, Farley said.
Out of around 28 volunteers, the fire department has two on-call firefighters who work in town and can respond to fire calls during the day, Farley said.
In 2016, the fire department had 307 calls between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6:59 p.m., and approximately 92 calls between 7 p.m. and 6:59 a.m.
Farley listed typical daytime calls that would not require mutual aid as fire alarm activations, LP gas alarms, carbon monoxide detector activations and grass fires.
In the case of a fire in Camden, mutual aid brings in additional fire departments. When a fire in Camden is called in to 911, it is handled by the Knox County Regional Dispatch Center, and Rockport, Hope and Lincolnville fire departments are automatically dispatched at the same time.
With three full-time employes, Farley has, on occasion, found himself alone in the fire department, "covering the shift." While it does not happen often, there have been a couple of times over the years where he has been the only one to respond to an alarm on a truck.
Farley said the number of volunteers he has fluctuates all the time. Out in the bay where the firefighters' uniforms hang on pegs, Farley listed off where each volunteer works, and the types of jobs they hold.
A number of volunteers work miles away from Camden. Others work for Knox County Dispatch and the Maine State Prison in Warren. Some work in customer-service-oriented businesses. Several volunteers are newly trained, or semi-retired.
Courier Publications reporter Susan Mustapich can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.