ROCKLAND — Rockland Fire Chief Christopher Whytock warned the Rockland City Council that without a significant change, the department will lose experienced staff and have a difficult time filling vacancies.

The fire chief spoke to the City Council Wednesday night, Jan. 12 via Zoom.

The proposal put forth by the chief is to ultimately hire four more people, creating an additional shift. This would allow the city to change the workweeks for firefighters/emergency medical service personnel from 56 hours to 42 hours. The weekly pay would not change, but the reduction in hours would increase the hourly rate to be more in line with other Maine communities.

The change, when all four additional personnel are employed, will cost the city an additional $312,000 a year.

The number of calls is increasing each year and the severity of the calls are increasing, the chief said. Nearly a third of the calls are made when the department is responding to other calls. He pointed out earlier in the day, a call for a smell of propane inside the Salvation Army building on Route 1 came in as the department was already responding to two separate ambulance calls.

The chief said he noticed a sign at the Maritime Farms store advertising for workers starting at $16 an hour.

The current hourly rate for a starting member of the department is $16.36, the chief noted. This compares to $19.26, to as high as $27 an hour, for other Maine departments who have gone to a shorter workweek.

“They literally save lives and do amazing things every day,” Whytock said of the members of the department.

The chief said five of the seven officers in the department will be retiring within five years. He said some of the officers who are near retirement have agreed to remain on the job longer, but that action needs to begin now to prevent an exodus that will not be able to be filled.

Fewer people are entering the career, and those who do want to have a better work-life balance. Currently, Rockland emergency staff work 24 hours straight and then 48 hours off.  The addition of another shift of workers changes the schedule from 24 hours on and 96 hours off.

The movement toward the change needs to start, he said. The 2022-2023 budget will be submitted to the Council in the spring and be enacted by July 1.

“I’m concerned what public safety will look like in six months to a year,” the chief said without the change.

City Councilors voiced support for the request by the chief.

“We just have to find the money,” Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf said.

Former Mayor Brian Harden said the staff were “incredible, cheerful, helpful, and professional to the nth degree.” Harden said he is paying more than $7,000 in property taxes each year, but he still supports the proposal.

“When you need the service, you need it,” Harden said.

The Rockland chief also told councilors a proposal is being developed for a regional service that would include Camden and Rockport.