WATERVILLE — When firefighters responded to a fire Oct. 18 at a multi-unit apartment building on Pleasant Street, so few firefighters appeared at the scene in the first several minutes that fire Chief Shawn Esler and his incident commander had to go into the building and help evacuate residents from the third floor, just above where a cooking fire had ignited a blaze on the second floor.

Seven on-call firefighters arrived, but because the crew was short-handed, firefighters struck a second alarm and requested firefighters from Fairfield, Winslow and Oakland, as well as the Rapid Intervention Team from Skowhegan.

Once the fire was contained, Esler emphasized the need for more career and on-call firefighters, saying the situation at the building that houses mostly elderly people 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.”

At a City Council meeting Nov. 7, Esler described the fire department’s situation at the request of City Manager Michael Roy. Esler said that nearly 80 percent of the department’s on-call and part-time firefighter budget had been expended as of Oct. 1 — $35,225 of the budgeted $44,490 — since July 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year. To minimize that overage, he has directed reductions in services specific to the on-call force. They include reducing all CPR training to outside organizations, fire prevention activities and fire safety education, hydrant shoveling, storm coverage, training for technical rescue and hazardous materials, paid meetings and so forth.

The fire department had requested $64,490 for the 2018-19 on-call firefighter budget, Roy requested $54,490 be budgeted, but only $44,490 was appropriated.

For multiple reasons, there is a shortage of firefighters, not only in Maine, but nationwide, and it is a problem fire departments struggle with every day. Esler, like many fire chiefs, is worried for resident and firefighter safety.

Waterville’s struggle to get enough firefighters to fires within the critical first 10 minutes is not exclusive to the city. It happens everywhere. Waterville officials are looking at equipment and staff shortfalls and exploring what can be done to find solutions.

“I do have confidence in the mayor, city manager and city council,” Esler said last week. “They’re going to take a good, hard look at this and come up with some solutions.”

LOW INCENTIVE, TOUGH TRAINING

Twenty-five years ago, about 12,000 firefighters worked in Maine and now fewer than 8,000 work in the state, according to Jeffrey Cammack, executive director of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association.

Cammack, former fire chief for the city of Bangor where he worked 33 years, says years ago, people worked in mills and at other jobs where employers allowed them to leave to fight fires, but that scenario has changed. For one thing, some people work three jobs to make ends meet, and it would be difficult for them to be on-call firefighters. The pay for on-call firefighters is barely minimum wage.

In addition to those changes, the shortage of firefighters can be attributed to several factors, including the fact that firefighters age and retire and that fewer people are volunteering for all sorts of things, but also because of training requirements, according to Fairfield fire Chief Duane Bickford.

Training requirements have become much more rigorous, Cammack said. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, a volunteer fire department might train once a month and now they train at least weekly.

Bickford believes there are ways to work around such problems by spreading out training for some people over a longer period of time.

“You don’t have to do it all at once,” he said.

Nevertheless, training requirements for firefighters are stiff and often require trainees to be away from their families evenings and weekends. Firefighting is risky, not only because it is dangerous going into fires, but also because of exposure to carcinogens, blood-borne pathogens and other materials.

“This is a high-risk profession,” says Winslow fire Chief Ronnie Rodriguez. “You take somebody with a full-time job, and they’re the bread-winner for the family. It’s a risky proposition to say, ‘Come work on a call basis or part-time basis and risk your health, welfare and safety for very little pay.'”

Many on-call firefighters work for multiple departments. Some on-call firefighters have only Firefighter I training, which allows them to enter buildings, while others have Firefighter I and II, which allows them to be outside and enter buildings.

“We’re all facing the same problem,” Rodriguez said, “and it’s compounded because a department might have a call force of 20 people, but those 20 people might be on the call force of another jurisdiction.”

Bickford, a past president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, said Fairfield has “automatic mutual aid,” which means if there is a building fire, certain fire departments are automatically dispatched to it.

On the other hand, as Oakland fire Chief David Coughlin says, mutual aid is just that — availability to assist another department, but it is not supposed to take the place of the force.

“It’s a challenge, no question about it,” Coughlin said. “It’s a challenge to get the appropriate number of people to a scene with the appropriate level of training to do what needs to be done without relying on multiple departments.”

SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS

Municipalities are finding themselves having to look at creative ways to make up for fire department shortfalls, including budget issues.

Rodriguez, who has been chief in Winslow only since September, has been looking at all possibilities for his department.

“I’m doing research to figure out ways I can have a net zero cost to the town and still provide improved services for the citizens we serve,” he said. “I am analyzing where we’re spending our money and how we might be better off allocating it to other resources.”

Rodriguez said area departments work well together and do a lot with what they have. He noted that firefighters work hard when they are not responding to fire or medical calls cleaning trucks, equipment and the station, taking part in trainings and doing paperwork, among other things.

“We have to be the best stewards of the resources that we’ve been blessed with — we really do,” he said. “It’s phenomenal what our people do.”

Fairfield Chief Bickford said he does not see firefighter staffing issues getting better for departments in the near future.

“We have to figure out ways to produce revenue instead of everything coming from tax dollars,” he said. “For us, the only way to do that is to start transporting ambulance service, and the problem with that is, it’s very expensive to start up.”

Bickford’s department, which has six full-time firefighters and 25 on-call firefighters, is licensed as a basic “non-transporting service,” which means Rescue can not take people to hospitals, as Delta Ambulance does and bills the patients.

Like Bickford, Coughlin says he does not see the situation getting any better and fire departments are trying to institute various strategies, such as having per diem firefighters who work various hours.

Cammack, of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, also is working on solutions.

“We’re working on legislation that we’re submitting this session,” Cammack said. ” We’re looking to create some type of retirement pool for call and volunteer firefighters to try to entice them to belong.”

By creating a retirement pool, officials hope to interest retired firefighters in becoming members and to provide an incentive for new people to train for the fire service.

WATERVILLE EXPLORES SOLUTIONS

Roy, Waterville’s city manager, says the fire department, which has 15 full-time firefighters and 26 on-call firefighters, needs a new tower truck within the next one to three years. It also needs a truck to replace one that is 30 years old. In Waterville, about 80 percent of fire calls are for rescue services, he said.

The city does not have the number of firefighters it once had. Many years ago, when Gov. Paul LePage was mayor, the city’s workforce was cut from 126 to 109 and of the 17 positions lost, four or five were firefighters, according to Roy. Today, the city has 110 employees, he said.

“This was a concern for former fire Chief (David) LaFountain and for Shawn Esler,” Roy said. “Reduction in the firefighting force has been a concern expressed over quite a period of time.”

Roy said he asked Esler to report to the council Nov. 7 on the on-call force budget as well as his plans for reductions in training and other activities for that force.

Roy said the two big issues are not having enough firefighters showing up for fires and not enough money in the budget for on-call firefighters. He and others are working on the issue.

“We’re certainly not going to endanger any public safety by not having an adequate response,” Roy said.

Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said councilors will face difficult decisions in deciding what to do. Soule did not seek re-election and so will not be working on the next budget.

“Citizens want and deserve fire and police to be essential services,” Soule said. “Unfortunately, they also want their taxes to not reflect that. It will be a very difficult decision for the next council, as I bet the majority do not want to wait for a fireman to leave work to come fight a fire.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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