While solutions to the looming crisis facing small Maine fire departments are being weighed in the Legislature and individual departments, state and regional officials say problems recruiting and retaining a dwindling number of volunteer firefighters needs a broader focus.

House Speaker Mark Eves, who has sponsored legislation to help ease the financial crunch small departments face, said targeting a certain issue will help a little, but there has to be a larger conversation.

But legislation to help ease the financial burden on towns or offer incentives to firefighters so far hasn’t had the support of Gov. Paul LePage, and other officials have issues ranging from costs to the amount of control that may be taken away from municipal governments.

“I have to believe that there is a lot more to it to solve the problem,” Eves, a North Berwick Democrat, said. “We need to understand exactly why there is a decline and that shortage of volunteers.”

Last week, the Morning Sentinel reported that the declining numbers of volunteer firefighters is threatening communities’ ability to offer an essential public service. Small departments have tightened budgets and struggle to maintain a roster of fully trained staff, while the demand and cost for fire and rescue services increases.

Some department chiefs said they barely have enough fully trained firefighters to perform certain tasks, such as interior attacks on burning buildings. The situation at many small Maine departments is nearing a crisis level, said Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

The most focused attack on the problem in Maine is legislative action to ease the financial burden on departments and to help recruit and keep volunteers.

The Maine State Federation of Firefighters, Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association and Maine Fire Protection Services Commission testified this session for a financial rewards program for those with longevity in a volunteer department, a bill vetoed last session by Gov. Paul LePage, who said it “expands state government at a time when the taxpayers of Maine can least afford it.”

The LePage administration did not respond to requests for comment this week on the challenges facing small fire departments or on possible solutions.

The federation of firefighters’ proposed financial rewards program, L.D. 164, would have the state set up and annually deposit money into accounts for firefighters when they retire, which the federation estimates would cost about $300,000 to $400,000 the first year.

Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad said his office has been aware of the challenges municipalities face in trying to recruit and retain on-call firefighters. However, he said while the municipal association is “not opposed to efforts to increase numbers,” it is against the state creating a program for municipal employees that isn’t controlled by the municipalities.

“The answer isn’t to create an expensive program that the towns and cities can’t control,” he said.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said he is aware of challenges fire departments face, but said he is concerned about the cost of the proposed new state program.

“I think to drop in a situation where we’re going to add a state paid pension is not the way to do it,” he said.

Among other firefighter related bills, Eves’ L.D. 500 would allow municipalities to give small incentives such as property tax breaks of up to $750 for on-call firefighters and EMTs.

Eves said the bill was prompted by a request from his hometown of North Berwick, which, like many towns in the state, is having a difficult time getting residents to volunteer for the fire department.

“My hometown is struggling with something that a lot of communities are struggling with,” he said.

The bill’s co-sponsors include legislators from both parties, including retired firefighter Michel A. Lajoie, D-Lewiston, and China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault, a Republican.

“The bipartisan community has identified a challenge that people see in the state,” said Eves. “It’s a statewide issue.”

The problem isn’t unique to Maine. In other states and nationally, departments face the same issues and the same struggles for a solution.

Robert Brady, local government policy specialist with the Pennsylvania governor’s office, said the issues reported in the Morning Sentinel story echo those in his state.

Brady assists a program led by local fire rescue and EMS organizations to make partnerships such as department mergers, consolidations or other regional efforts that share services. He said there are committees in 36 counties in Pennsylvania that are looking at what their options are.

“Although there is a leap of faith needed to embark on these projects, the benefits far outweigh the downfalls,” he said. “We still have challenges today, but we’re further ahead than we were before doing so.”

Brady said he would be interested in speaking with anyone in Maine who would like to learn more about what Pennsylvania is trying.

Ken Willette, division manager of the National Fire Protection Association public fire protection division, said it is a challenge nationwide to recruit volunteers, and he gets “probably a half dozen requests a year” from news outlets in the U.S. covering the topic.

Willette cited a profile of firefighting in the U.S. that the NFPA released in November that showed the number of non-career firefighters had decreased since 1986 from 808,200 volunteers, or 7.9 per 1,000 people, to 786,150 volunteers, or 6.5 per 1,000 people.

“The thinking is that this has resulted in more going to part-paid or all-paid fire departments because of the challenges in recruiting volunteers,” he said.

Another national official echoes what Maine fire chiefs said in the Sentinel story.

“What we’re really seeing is a pretty significant decrease in the number of younger people entering the fire service and an increase in the number of older firefighters,” said Dave Finger, chief of legislative and regional affairs for National Volunteer Fire Council.

To combat the problem, Finger said that within the past year, his organization received a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security to develop a national recruitment and retention program. The program, still being worked on, will provide tools to help states attract on-call firefighters.

In the meantime, officials at the municipal level are continuing to find ground-up approaches to the problem.

Shawn Howard, chief of Madison and Skowhegan fire departments, said Monday many town residents have told him in the past week that they didn’t know how serious the problems were.

“They were taken aback” when they read about them, he said. “They said is this true? I said ‘Absolutely.’ I think a lot of people had no idea.”

Howard is working with the Maine Fire Service Institute to develop a pilot program to offer regional officer training classes to help ensure fire officers in the area are all on the same page when they respond together for mutual aid.

Howard said finding solutions can be challenging because you have to keep in mind the limits of the tax base.

“I think everyone knows something has to be done, but nobody truly has one answer,” he said. “We’re kind of wading through these waters together. I think there’s a trial and error element to finding the answer.”

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

[email protected]


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