Belgrade and Rome have agreed to study the feasibility of merging their fire and rescue departments to help address the dwindling number of volunteers and to serve residents better.

The boards of selectmen in both towns have approved an agreement setting up a study committee.

That agreement notes that the towns have worked through a mutual-aid agreement in the past.

“However, our society is changing, and our communities are growing older,” the agreement states. “Consequently the number of volunteers to support these community services is declining while the need for these services is growing.”

Rome is seeking three volunteers who want to serve on the Town of Rome Fire/Rescue Merger Exploratory Ad Hoc Committee. Applications are due by Thursday at the Town Office.

Belgrade’s three committee members will be selected by Fire and Rescue Chief Daniel MacKenzie, said Rick Damren, chairman of the Belgrade board. The two fire chiefs will co-chair the committee, and each town is to appoint one person to provide administrative support to the committee. The final report is to be presented to a joint meeting of the two towns’ boards.

“My personal feeling is that we need to look at it,” Damren said Monday. “I don’t know where it will go if it will go anywhere.”

A member of the Fire Department who has served previously as fire chief and assistant chief, Damren recalls a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the department had 52 members.

MacKenzie estimates there are about 30 people total in Belgrade’s fire and rescue units today.

“There are definitely fewer people these days who can respond to fire and rescue calls, and fewer people who want to do it,” Damren said.

Formerly there were fewer training requirements, he noted. He said it appears that the departments might need to regionalize to help other towns and their own better.

Other central Maine towns have created their own regionalization coverage.

Fairfield and Benton signed a new inter-local agreement in the spring of 2014 whereby Benton is a partner in the Fairfield Fire Department.

Now there’s the Fairfield and Benton Fire-Rescue Department, headed by Chief Duane Bickford, with six full-time firefighter/emergency medical technicians and 20 volunteer firefighters.

Norrridgewock and Mercer also have a cooperative agreement through which the latter pays about 17 percent of the former’s operating costs for fire and rescue.

“This is a long-standing relationship,” said Richard LaBelle, who is Norridgewock’s town manager as well as first selectman in Rome.

He has seen changes over the past decade or so, with more people working outside Rome and unavailable to respond to fire and/or rescue calls.

“We don’t have the solid response that we’d really like to see,” LaBelle said.

He said Rome Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Foss has been discussing the lack of coverage with both the selectmen and townspeople for the past several years, and that Belgrade Town Manager Dennis Keschl reported similar problems in Belgrade.

Keschl and MacKenzie met with Rome selectmen and Foss in September to discuss the issue.

At that meeting, Rome Selectman Malcolm Charles said he hoped the regionalization effort would be kept small, and indicated that the region’s geography, which includes many lakes, lends itself naturally to Rome and Belgrade working together.

“Through economies of scale and cooperative purchasing, we might be able to expand coverage,” LaBelle said.

He also sees it as a way to create more training opportunities and possibly bring down administrative costs.

“We could realize savings and utilize that savings to expand coverage,” LaBelle said. “I think Belgrade and Rome are really ahead of the curve here.

“We’re really putting it out to the people to see what their thoughts are,” he added.

According to the town’s website, the rescue squad has nine active members, and the Fire Department has 14. The town’s website also gives a look at the area those volunteers have to cover: “1,038 dwellings, 31.72 square miles of land, 6.31 square miles of water, approximately $317.6 million in real estate, and over 1,000 year-round residents,” and notes that the population “nearly triples” in summer.

Both MacKenzie and Foss said they could expect to see perhaps three people respond to a fire call in their respective towns on a weekday morning.

“It depends on who’s in town,” MacKenzie said. “That’s our whole problem; everybody’s out of town.”

He cited a lack of volunteers as well as the fact that most people work outside of Belgrade.

“We could have three or we could have 10,” MacKenzie said, “it depends on who’s around.”

“You don’t know who’s around and you just don’t know the statistics of what people are doing,” Foss echoed.

He said that working even more closely together than the departments do now would be a way “to better the coverage for the citizens of Rome and Belgrade.”

Under the current mutual-aid agreement, both departments respond to each other’s structure fires and extrication calls.

“We work very well together and have done so for many years and hope to do so for many more,” Foss said.

In 2014, Belgrade hired Travis Burton as its first full-time firefighter/paramedic. Burton, who has been with the town’s Fire Department since 1995, works four 10-hour days, and the town hires another person per diem to fill in on the fifth day, MacKenzie said.

The office is in the Belgrade Lakes Fire Station. The town also has fire stations in North Belgrade and Belgrade Depot.

Rome’s Fire Department is at 10 Mercer Road, next to the Rome Town Office.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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