STARKS — The Fire Department is down to three active volunteers and the lack of personnel means more than just not enough people to respond to fires.
Slower emergency response time in the town and surrounding towns, a bigger strain on neighboring towns and potential increases in homeowner’s insurance are just some of the effects for residents if more volunteers don’t step up.
“It is a great asset to our town to have a fire department; and if there is the interest, I would like to keep it going,” Fire Chief Julie Costigan said Monday night at a meeting to recruit volunteers.
“All we need is a few people to get a truck there and start pumping water before our mutual aid can arrive,” she said.
The department has six people on its roster, but only half of them are active. The department is holding an open house next Wednesday at the fire station, hoping to get more people interested.
The shortage doesn’t affect only Starks residents. It also drains resources from the neighboring town of Anson, where firefighters increasingly are being called on to assist with emergency response.
Anson responds to 25 to 30 calls in Starks annually and has spent about $4,000 in assisting Starks so far this year, according to Anson Fire Chief Jeremy Manzer. That cost includes fuel, equipment and wear and tear on vehicles.
“It’s a significant burden to the town of Anson and their taxpayers,” he said. “We will never not go to help, but right now the town of Anson is paying to subsidize somebody else’s town.”
Starks is not alone in its need for volunteer firefighters. Across the country the number of volunteers decreased 13 percent from 1984 to 2012, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council; yet the need for volunteer firefighters remains high.
To the west, in Franklin County, a proposal for a regional firefighting agreement is being considered to assure towns without a department get assistance at fires.
In Maine, 93 percent of fire departments are run completely or mostly by volunteers, even though numbers are declining. In the last 10 years, the total number of firefighters in the state has declined from about 12,000 to 7,700, according to Ken Desmond, assistant director for the National Volunteer Firefighter’s Council Maine chapter and vice president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.
“We’re losing firefighters throughout the state. Recruitment and retention are very high on our radar,” Desmond said. The reasons for the struggle stem mostly from Maine’s aging population and the physically demanding work of firefighting, he said.
Training can also be time-consuming and can involve up to 100 hours in classes that are offered only at select sites around the state. To become certified — a distinction for firefighters who are trained to wear oxygen masks and go inside a burning structure — training can be even more intensive and require up to 200 hours, Desmond said.
In addition, an increasing number of Maine residents are working outside their towns, drawing them away for up to 10 or 14 hours per day and decreasing their available time to serve local fire departments, he said.
In Starks, lack of volunteers is something the department has faced for as long as Costigan, who has been chief for eight years, can remember.
The firefighters are called volunteers, although they are paid a small amount for each call they respond to and most training, she said. The decision to pay firefighters $6 an hour when out on calls was made in 1998 as a way to attract new members.
Today they are paid $8 an hour on calls, but the decline in firefighters has persisted, mainly because of the increased demands of training and time commitment, Costigan said. The department also pays for training and time spent at training, she said.
“There are very few fire departments that don’t pay something. We try to give people something for the time they spend that might otherwise be spent at their jobs,” she said.
Municipalities aren’t required to have fire departments, but it benefits residents to have one.
Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said state law does provide rules for how municipal departments must be set up, both those where employees are paid directly by the town or city and equipment and buildings are municipally owned and those volunteer fire departments that operate as independent nonprofit agencies and have municipal support or by contracting service though a neighboring municipality.
Since 2008, the Maine First Resonders State Wide Mutual Aid Agreement also has allowed municipalities to collaborate when it comes to emergency response. The law allows municipalities to arrange for reciprocal emergency aid assistance in situations that are too great for an individual town or city to handle.
Increasingly, more towns are becoming reliant on multiple departments responding, especially when they might not have enough of their own personnel to handle fires or other emergencies, said Desmond. But maintaining a municipal fire department can be important for reasons that include faster response time and lower insurance costs for homeowners, he said.
NOTHING BEATS HOME-GROWN
In Starks, which has mutual aid agreements with Anson, Industry, Madison and New Sharon, the additional help is important but cannot replace the role of a town fire department, Costigan said. Contracting fire service through Anson is one option the town would consider if more recruits can’t be found.
“Even Anson is eight miles away. That makes a difference when someone’s home is on fire. Maybe we can’t put it out by ourselves, but we can get there first,” Costigan said.
Fire department response is also a factor when it comes to calculating insurance costs, although a change in fire service does not necessarily mean an automatic increase in rates, according to John Fortier, a Waterville insurance agent for State Farm Insurance. The type and age of a home, wiring, size of the home and its replacement value are also factors in calculating costs and the method of calculation can vary at different companies.
At State Farm, insurance costs are calculated by looking at fire losses in the ZIP code area where a home is, he said, speaking as an agent and not a spokesman for State Farm.
An alternative method is a rating from the Insurance Services Office, a business that rates every fire department in the United States based on a variety of items from age of equipment to number of volunteer and career firefighters, to determine rates.
“It depends on the carrier. Every company has a different philosophy, but in every case there are many factors that determine insurance rates,” Fortier said.
Many towns in Somerset County and around the state do contract fire service, and it is something Starks has discussed with Anson and Madison in the past. The idea of Anson, Madison and Starks sharing a fire service was rejected, however, because it would have cost Madison more money than it spends now on fire protection, Costigan said.
Some smaller towns, such as Mercer and Embden, contract with nearby towns. Mercer pays Norridgewock for fire service, while Embden contracts with Anson.
But because Starks has its own fire station and equipment, there is no financial incentive to look elsewhere for fire service, according to First Selectman Paul Frederic.
“It’s not a financial issue, it’s a staffing issue. We do have the financial resources to meet our needs, at least in the short term,” said Frederic.
The department currently has an annual budget of between $25,000 and $30,000.
As part of the mutual-aid agreement between the two towns, Anson agrees to assist Starks while Starks also will assist Anson; but lately it has been a one-way street, Manzer said. Anson also has mutual-aid agreements with Madison, New Portland and Solon.
“It’s no longer a give-and-take. The agreement is that we go help them; but when we need help, they have nothing to offer,” he said.
The open house at the station is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 2.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 [email protected]