There’s no easy solution to Franklin County’s firefighter shortage, but county officials hope to work together to find one.
Franklin County fire departments, like rural fire departments across the state, have been unable to stem the steady drop in volunteers and can’t afford to spring for full-time staff.
In Farmington alone, the department has lost 18 volunteers in the last five years and now has 25 members to respond to its hundreds of annual calls. Last year there were 338.
Farmington Selectman Ryan Morgan said he brought up the idea of a countywide meeting to see if working together would ensure sufficient staff and equipment as volunteer rates drop and budgets get tighter.
A meeting to discuss possible solutions, including regionalization, is set for 6 p.m. April 30 at Franklin Memorial Hospital.
“There’s a manpower issue because of the time commitment that comes with it,” Morgan said. “This will be a starting point to talk about the problem and study it, instead of realizing in two years that we’ve got a fire and no one is there.”
While the number of volunteers is decreasing, the demand on departments is increasing in many towns, said Bill Guindon, director of Maine Fire Service Institute, which does training for the state’s fire departments.
For example, firefighters need to respond in a shorter amount of time, Guindon said, because modern furnishings are often petroleum-based and burn hotter and faster. He said a fire that might have consumed a room in 20 minutes would now spread through that same room in about three and a half minutes.
Also, firefighters are performing more services, such as emergency medicine, which increase with an aging population.
And all the while, the firefighters are aging, too.
Bell, chief of the Farmington Fire Department, said half of his roster is over the age of 50 and he needs younger people interested in taking retired members’ places.
The area’s changing settlement patterns also hamper recruitment efforts. Bell said fewer people work in the communities where they live and might be commuting too far to be on call.
Civic participation has dropped in general, and the fire departments are not the only ones struggling with recruitment. Town can’t fill vacant committee seats and social service clubs such as Rotary and the Lions Club are dealing with membership decline.
“People don’t join as many civic organization as they used to,” Guindon said.
Some departments have postponed hiring full-time personnel by hiring per diem staff — a rotating schedule of the volunteers who are paid by the hour.
Farmington voters approved a 20 percent budget to $380,000 increase Monday to increase the per diem staff and stave off investing in a full-time department.
By not having salaried staff members other than Bell, Farmington still pays half of what Fairfield and Skowhegan do to respond to a similar number of calls, both Bell and Town Manager Richard Davis said.
County officials said they are not sure if a regional system would solve all these problems, but they want to explore whether it could mitigate the problem.
Guindon said some regional systems are already in place in the state and it’s a common practice in Western states. Sometimes fire departments are able to come together, and other times the different groups are unable to collaborate, he said.
“It’s kind of like a marriage. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.
Bell said the important thing about the meeting is getting everyone involved together to talk about proactive measures. He said it’s important for local leaders to be educated on the problems and their context.
“It’s not a local problem. It’s a problem everywhere. Hopefully, we’ll come up with ideas; but if not, at least we’ll be communicating,” he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 [email protected]