Fire departments struggle to find, retain volunteers
Most Midcoast communities rely on volunteers to respond to fires, but those volunteers have been dwindling in numbers for years, according to local fire officials.
Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley said to selectmen in November the "recruitment and retention of firefighters is an issue nation-wide." In recent months, the Camden department has lost 10 members — some to other jobs, some to college or the military — Farley said, adding the department is down to a core group of about 20 volunteers willing and available to respond to fires. Three of those people are full-time paid positions, one of which is Farley's.
"We need people in the fire department," he said. "We can't do this by ourselves if we want to continue the fire department with volunteers and not career people."
The only area fire department with full-time, 24-hour coverage is Rockland; the coverage is staffed by dual-trained fire and emergency medical service personnel. Many area departments have per diem daytime EMS personnel for medical calls and Rockport has a full-time fire chief.
Part of the reason for the sharp drop off in volunteers can be attributed to the extensive amount of training required, Farley noted.
"If people are willing to come in and take part in training, we can find a place for them," he said.
Most volunteer department chiefs and some officers are paid a yearly stipend and volunteers generally paid an hourly wage for responding to fires. In Hope, Fire Chief Clarence Keller has been asking for years for an increase in his yearly stipend of $2,000 but has been repeatedly denied by voters at town meeting.
Keller previously said his hours have increased dramatically, going from a little more than 200 hours each year to 565 hours the last several years.
During the June 2013 town meeting, Keller, who will have served 25 years as Hope's fire chief in September, said more time is needed to create policies within the department to address potential personnel issues, design schedules for replacement of fire apparatus and equipment and pursue grant opportunities as well as formalize the junior firefighter program to bring in some younger volunteers. He noted the current average age of Hope firefighters is 45 years old.
"We have to look at the future of Hope," Keller said in June, adding volunteerism is declining in small departments and communities all over the state.
In an effort to increase the number of available volunteers, area fire departments helped establish a firefighting program at Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland. The school serves students from Oceanside, Medomak Valley and Camden Hills as well as island schools and is open to any student that shows an interest, according to instructor Mike Drinkwater. The program was established five years ago using donated equipment from area departments, he said.
"Area departments thought it might be good for recruitment and retention," Drinkwater said. "This is a great potential recruitment tool."
Some students — as with many professions — are drawn to the fire department because of family connections but sometimes a demonstration is all it takes to grab the interest of a new recruit, he said.
"I work with the school to help them find their way. ... There are roles in the department they can fill even if they don't like confined spaces, heights or wearing an air pack," Drinkwater said.
This year, there are 10 students enrolled in the program, which also gives students college credits after completion of the 175-hour program. Drinkwater noted a number of other classes at the school have helped the program with carpentry classes constructing lockers for turnout gear and building a classroom edition to the garage housing a fire truck and classes studying welding and small engines have also helped.
"The addition works well, I used to pull the trucks out, set up tables and a projector [for classroom time]," he said. "It's like a fire department, we're always building and trying to make it better. ... This is a chance for the younger generations to give it a try."
Another new collaborative venture called Knox County Fire Training Academy seeks to offer firefighter training as well, for a different group of volunteers: those already out of school.
Academy staff is made up of area full-time firefighters and EMS personnel. A basic fire school was offered last summer and firefighter I and firefighter II classes began this month, said instructor Andrew Lowe, who is also a full-time member of Camden Fire Department.
The academy was formed at the behest of Knox County Mutual Aid Association members as a way to offer local training to department members who otherwise could take as long as a year and a half to complete the training, Lowe said, adding in the past, firefighters have been required to travel and "float around and find out who is doing what [training] where."
Firefighter I and II class through KCFTA will last until early June, with meetings each Wednesday night in addition to a few all-day Saturday classes, he said.
"We're starting to build traction and be recognized for people to get training," Lowe said, adding the costs of the training is low to allow volunteer departments to send members without stretching already tight budgets. "Ultimately our goal and our mission is to better firefighters to benefit all of Knox County. ... Lots of departments don't have a big training budget."
Instructors at the academy are not compensated for their time and departments are charged only for instructional materials like books, he said. Long gone are the days of walking into a department and being accepted without question, Lowe noted, adding students now are required to pass a physical exam prior to beginning classes.
And it is not only training that is a barrier to retaining volunteers, it is also the need for volunteer firefighters to work full-time outside the fire department, Lowe said.
"At this rate, the county is going toward career firefighters," he said, concurring with Farley's earlier assessment.
However, moving to full-time fire coverage would be costly for many small towns. According to history of Rockland Fire Department, full-time coverage began in the city in 1927 with an expansion to EMS in 1977. Rockland's combined fire and EMS budget for 2012-2013 totaled more than $2 million, according to published budget figures, with $1.5 million allotted for the fire department and more than $630,000 for EMS — rescue service costs are often offset by income from billing patients and insurance companies.
In comparison, Camden budgeted slightly less than $345,000 for the three- full-time member fire department last year, Hope — an entirely volunteer department — $142,000 and Rockport, with a full-time chief, $335,000. In Lincolnville, the public safety budget came in at $386,000 for fire and police services and the police department has since been eliminated.
Courier Publications Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at email@example.com.