6:08 PM, Jan 30, 2014
BUXTON, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — In many towns throughout Maine, volunteers make up the majority of the fire personnel called upon in an emergency, but over the past few decades, the number of volunteers willing to sacrifice their time and energy has plummeted.
“We tend to use the word volunteer loosely. People here are employees of the town. They are paid to go to calls, to go to trainings,” explained Buxton Fire Chief Nate Schools.
But despite incentives such as paid training, and being paid for the hours spent responding to calls and in the classroom while obtaining needed certifications, many departments are struggling to keep their trucks staffed.
“We lose people over time because they don’t have the time to commit to training, and to the increase of call volume that we are having on both the fire and rescue side of the department,” said Schools.
“When I joined, the Scarborough Fire Department was doing just a little more than 1000 calls a year,” stated Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow. “Today, we are doing almost 4000 calls a year.”
“That means they are out three times a day, not two or three times a week, and that is just impossible for a call member to make that kind of commitment and get that truck out,” he added.
He says few volunteers are willing to handle the crushing number of calls for service, which take them away from their families and their other jobs, leaving already swamped departments short on staff.
“It’s a combination of growths in the communities, growths in the number of calls, a wider variety of the calls we are doing, the additional training requirements and certifications that we really have to do to keep folks trained and safe and operating on the fire ground in a safe manner so everybody goes home,” explained Thurlow.
He’s seen the number of volunteers shrink from more than 300 in the 1970’s to fewer than 100 now.
“It’s a double whammy,” he said. “We’ve got three or four times the number of calls that we are responding to, with one third of the folks to do the job.”
The situation has forced departments from neighboring towns to share resources, in many cases increasing critical response times.
“That is the reality we are dealing with now,” admitted State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas. “I mean, it has become a circumstance where almost a regional approach to fire protection and fire suppression has become the norm.”
He says many departments have only one full-time paid employee, the fire chief, and most of them are seeking solutions to their staffing problems with limited financial resources and and few options.
“No matter how big the bucket, there is always a bottom there,” said Thomas. “If they run out of people, those trucks aren’t coming out the doors.”
“Carrying the torch, if you will, is probably the biggest challenge we have in the fire service,” stated Bill Guindon, director of the Maine Fire Service Institute. “The demands have increased dramatically, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a volunteer, part-time, or full-time.”
He estimates there are roughly seven, maybe as many as eight thousand volunteer fire fighters serving in their communities across the state.
He says towns and cities need to seriously evaluate what their needs and expectations are for fire service in their communities and get creative trying to encourage more volunteers, while partnering with other departments in their area to survive.
“There are approximately 127 departments that actually have part-time fire fighters, or what they call per diem, that are there to help fill the void if you will, especially in daytime coverage,” said Guindon. He expects the number of departments turning to paid staff to increase.
Fire Marshal Thomas says the state doesn’t not require, but enables towns and cities, to provide fire protection services. He doesn’t expect many departments will close their doors in the near future, but says the increased demands on an aging population of fire fighters is starting to take its toll.
“The desire, the ability, the obligation to be able to give one’s time and energy to being a fire fighter is difficult,” said Thomas.
He anticipates towns may start requiring the installation of residential sprinklers in newly constructed homes as one way of protecting people in the absence of an immediate response to a call for help.
The shortage of volunteers is not only eating into town budgets as they are forced to pay for additional staff, but it also impacts insurancerates for property owners when a community’s fire fighting response is not up to industry standards.
For now, fire departments are working with what they have to handle emergencies when they occur.
“We may show up to your house, we may not be able to go in because we don’t have the people to go in and fight that fire,” explained Chief Schools, who is working closely with neighboring communities to improve response times and provide coverage.
“[It] doesn’t matter what the side of the door says when the truck shows up, the person who is calling for an emergency is expecting that the person that gets off that truck is professional and can deal with that problem,” he said.
He hopes by educating residents of the challenges his department faces, they’ll better understand why funding their department is critical.
“Without this funding, without these people, I cannot do my job,” he said.
“For a fire chief now, that is probably a big bulk of their daily thought process, how am I going to provide fire protection services in this community today?” stated Thomas. “I don’t know if there is an easy answer, and I don’t know if there is any one answer.”