WATERVILLE — A fire Thursday in a multi-unit apartment building on Pleasant Street prompted an evacuation of the building and raised Fire Chief Shawn Esler’s concern about what he calls inadequate staffing on the city’s Fire Department to respond to fires.

At least two people in the building owned by the Waterville Housing Authority, which houses mostly elderly people, were taken to the hospital by Delta Ambulance during the fire, which initially was reported at 3:44 p.m. as a stove fire on the second floor, according to Esler. By 4:30 p.m., he said he was not sure about the extent of their injuries.

“We arrived here and about 15 of the 20 people had been evacuated from the building,” Esler said at the scene. “There were at least four people still in the building on the third floor, above the fire. Residents needed assistance getting out. Five minutes into the fire, we had no additional staffing on scene.”

Because of that, Esler and the department’s incident commander had to go into the building to help remove the occupants on the third floor while the other three firefighters worked to extinguish the fire on the second. Seven call firefighters arrived, but because the crew was so short-handed, firefighters struck a second alarm and requested firefighters from Fairfield, Winslow and Oakland, as well as the Rapid Intervention Team from Skowhegan, according to Esler.

“It was later determined the fire had extended beyond the stove into the cabinetry and was contained to that room,” he said.

At 6 p.m., Esler reported the cause of the fire was accidental — cooking material left unattended.

At the scene just after the fire was reported, black smoke billowed out of two second-story windows facing North Street. Firefighters with trucks arrived on the Pleasant Street side of the building and residents were coming out into the parking lot, some pushing walkers, and were given blankets to wrap around themselves. Several women got into vehicles to get warm, as it was 40 degrees and a bitter, cold wind whipped leaves around the lot.

Esler emphasized the need for more career and call firefighters, saying Thursday’s situation could have been much worse.

“This is a specific example of staffing shortfalls here in the city of Waterville,” he said. “This could have very easily turned into a major fire with multiple people trapped. We’re very fortunate that this was a small fire. The fire protection features of the building worked to contain this fire to one room — specifically, self-closing doors, notification of the fire alarm system. That really contributed to people being able to get out in a timely fashion once they were notified.”

He said the Fire Department is “hurting for staffing.”

“I think we need to educate the public and let them know what is going on here, in not only this community but statewide. I have only five employees on shift each day, for three shifts, and two are generally on rescue calls all the time, leaving us three people to handle operations and additional calls. In this case, we were in between calls, so we had a full response; and even that is not enough. I definitely need more call firefighters, but this is a line item in the budget that is continuously reduced, making us unable to hire additional staffing.”

Esler said several years ago 40 firefighters were on the force and now there are 26, but there is no money in the budget to hire more.

“It’s time, and I think the biggest piece is education and understanding how many calls we actually respond to each year — about 3,400 fire and rescue, which is about 10 a day. We run 35 cardiac arrests — this year, October to October. We’re saving 30 percent of people we lay our hands on, and that is a measurable number.”

He said the public’s expectation and what the Fire Department actually can provide for service are two different things. The department, he said, used to have seven firefighters per shift.

On Thursday, the crews did a good job, according to Esler. “They performed exceptionally well with limited staffing and resources in the first 10 minutes of this fire. The first 10 minutes is the most critical time period for life safety.”

City Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said late Thursday that he hopes the best for everyone who lives in the Pleasant Crossing building and said the council did discuss the department in this past year’s budget discussions but chose not to increase the staffing.

“Now, this decision is only correct if Waterville residents don’t need them, obviously,” he said. “On a day like today, we should all be re-thinking what our strategy is with the Fire Department. It’s one of those things that, if you need them, you really need them; so for next year’s council, it’ll be a tough decision.”

Soule is not seeking re-election in November, so he will not be serving on the council during next year’s budget process.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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