CHINA — Residents will vote on whether to provide stipends for volunteer firefighters at the annual Town Meeting in March, but not every one of the three fire chiefs in town says stipends will be effective.

The Board of Selectmen voted to put an article on the town warrant that would take up to $40,000 from the unrestricted fund balance and put it toward compensating emergency services personnel. The policy for paying those who volunteer for emergency services has not yet been decided by the select board.

The idea to provide a stipend for the essential services comes at a time when fire departments across the state are struggling to recruit volunteers, especially younger ones.

China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault said he has 21 volunteers, but only five can actually fight a fire. The others are older or not able to participate on those calls, he said, though they still attend meetings and trainings.

“It’s been at least five years since we’ve taken any new members,” Theriault said. The department just got two new members under the age of 50, he said, which is encouraging, but they still have to go through training to qualify for firefighting.

Theriault said he didn’t want to give an opinion before the fire departments have their regular meeting and discuss the issue, but he did say that no one really knows how to fix the problem. He thinks it’s partly the new generation, he said, and how the digital world has “slowed down life.”

“In 10 years from now, our fire department is going to have hardly anybody under 60,” he said.

Theriault also knows people who work as paramedics but don’t volunteer their skills because they see no reason to do for free what they get paid to do, he said.

“Either you want to help your community or you don’t,” he said. “I don’t know how you can change that in people’s mindset.”

The issue will be critical in 10 years if nothing changes, he said. “You just won’t be able to fight fires.”

To fund a full-time, paid fire department for a town like China would cost between $300,000 and $500,000, he said, which is a big price tag in a time when towns are trying to keep taxes low for residents while dealing with decreases in shared revenue from the state.

If you ask Dick Morse, fire chief at the South China Fire Department, a stipend isn’t the answer to the many problems.

“A couple years ago it came up, and in our department we voted not to do that,” Morse said. “It’s not really effective. It just gives people money for something they would do anyway.”

In South China, the department hasn’t had much trouble recruiting volunteers, Morse said. They have about 24 on the roster now, and about 15 are trained for interior fire attacks. It’s mostly an issue of timing, he said, because most people work and have families, and that would stand in the way of fire departments even if they had stipends.

Morse said the work isn’t about money. People volunteer to help the community and because they like the organization they’re joining. He does see a problem with the amount of training and paperwork volunteers are required to do, though.

“You couldn’t pay enough of a stipend to make up for that,” he said.

Select Board Chairman Neil Farrington said he knows that China is a little different, given it has three fire departments and a rescue team that work privately. While the town gives them operating funds, they raise the rest through fundraisers or grants. This model has worked in the past, he said, when a lot of people were involved in each station and it was like a “club,” but it’s not that way anymore.

Farrington first thought of a stipend for the China Rescue team because the chief, David Herard, takes most of the calls. He worries about what would happen if Herard were sick or away one day when an emergency happened.

“We can replace a house or a property, but it’s the lives inside,” he said.

He then proposed a stipend for all emergency response personnel after researching what surrounding fire departments, like Vassalboro and Albion, are doing. Some provide stipend salaries to the chiefs and assistant chiefs, stipends for training and non-emergency work or per call stipends for firefighters, and others use a point system that will give firefighters a check at the end of the year.

“We’re at that time where volunteerism is declining every year,” he said.

Most firefighters in the country are between the ages of 30 and 49, according to a profile of firefighters released by the National Fire Protection Association in 2016.

While the report says there has been a steady increase in both career and volunteer firefighters across the nation since 1986, the number of volunteers per 1,000 population has been decreasing.

The number of firefighters in Maine dropped from 12,000 in the early 1990s to, at most, 8,000, according a 2015 Sentinel story that quoted Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

Webb Shaw, fire chief at the Weeks Mills Fire Department on Dirigo Road, said he would support a stipend for volunteers. Not only do they give up their time, but they also spend their own money on fuel to get to calls when they don’t use a firetruck, he said.

“With rescue here in China, we do an average of 300 calls per year. Fire does roughly around 80,” he said. “With those of us that are rescue and fire, we’re responding to roughly 380 calls a year. That gets expensive.”

A few years ago Shaw estimated the amount of money he’d spent since joining the fire department 31 years ago for a presentation to the selectmen. The total was $10,000, and that wasn’t including the times he’d used his vehicle to stop traffic, keeping it running.

The department in Weeks Mills is small with about nine volunteers, six of whom are trained for interior attacks, Shaw said. He needs at least four people to do an interior attack, though six would be preferable, he said.

“People can’t volunteer the time,” he said. “Plus, a lot of people just don’t have funds.”

The China Rescue team, which he volunteers for as a paramedic, faces the same problem, he said. When he first joined in 2006, there were at least 15 members. Now it’s dwindled down to about seven, two of whom are classified as paramedics, the highest level of training.

The select board was split whether to put the article on the ballot at its meeting on Feb. 6, though for different reasons. The vote was 3-1, with selectman Joann Austin abstaining.

While Austin is “concerned about the volunteer team” in town, she said she didn’t agree with voting to put something on the ballot without a detailed plan. She questioned the amount of money Farrington chose and the decision to figure out how the stipend system would work after the town voted on it. She also said that the town has to consult each individual department about the issue.

“We have a particularly hard problem with our fire departments because we have three of them, and the three function quite differently from each other,” Austin said on the phone Wednesday. “Making one size fit all feels really puzzling.”

Selectman Ron Breton voted against the proposal, but not because he’s opposed to the idea of compensating China’s rescue services.

“My concern is that at the present time this board does not have a policy, a program or even any input from the three fire chiefs, and very limited input from the rescue service,” Breton said. “I hate to put out a warrant article asking for $40,000 from the residents when there’s nothing in place.”

Breton also has an issue with the choice of funding for the proposal. The $40,000 would be appropriated from the unrestricted fund balance, which is a fund of about $1.3 million reserved for emergencies that also helps the town’s credit rating if it needs a loan or bond.

“I’m not a big believer in using the undesignated fund balance,” Breton said, using another term for the fund. After combining the warrant articles that ask to transfer money from the fund this year, the total is close to or below $1 million.

Budget Committee Chairman Robert Batteese has said before at public meetings that the committee and the town’s assessor think the town should aim to always have $1.2 million in the fund. The amount in the fund can vary from week to week, China Town Manager Dan L’Heureux has said, as money gets returned from projects that don’t pan out.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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