When fire broke out at 192 Water St. in the early hours of Dec. 28, the response time for the Gardiner Fire Department was very short — just the time it takes to cross a parking lot.

But on that cold night, only two of the firefighter/paramedics of the four on the shift were available to respond to the building that houses Domino’s, because the other two were out on a call for the Gardiner Ambulance Service.

Sometimes when fire calls come in, all the firefighter/paramedics are out on rescue calls, and Gardiner relies on neighboring communities with whom it has mutual or automatic aid agreements to respond to fires.

On Wednesday, Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson is expected to give a presentation to city councilors on staffing in his department.

Earlier this year, At-Large City Councilor Tim Cusick highlighted concerns about staffing in the wake of the December 2018 fire and asked that the topic be added to a future meeting.

“I have said this before, and I’m going to say it again: We really need to do something about the fire department,” he said at the Jan. 9 City Council meeting. “We are not protecting the buildings or the citizens of this city with the staffing we have right now.”

Cusck said he was aware of talk in and around Gardiner and on social media about the fire department’s response to that and other fires.

“I don’t think people realize that we’re that short staffed when the ambulances are out and that we have been depending on other towns to come answer fire calls,” he said.

On Monday, Nelson was working on an analysis of calls for service to show how firefighters are deployed now and how they would be with additional firefighters on staff. Currently, four firefighters work each shift, responding to both fire calls and rescue calls for the Gardiner Ambulance Service.

“I was asked to look at what it would cost to add some people so we could increase our coverage,” Nelson said.

One of the ways to do that is through a federal grant. The Staffing for Adequate and Emergency Response Grants is a program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was created to provide direct funding to fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations to help maintain or increase the number of trained firefighters in their communities.

City officials have considered this before.

In March 2016, a divided City Council opted not to authorize Nelson to apply for a SAFER grant, in part because it’s not a continuing source of funding. He had outlined a request for seven additional firefighters to expand the coverage of his staff to 15. At that time, Nelson said he was concerned that the department’s call volume was increasing, and to meet that rising demand, he proposed adding four new firefighter/paramedics that year and three more the following year.

Because the grant provides funding for only a fixed amount of time, the city would be obligated to pay the salary and benefits for the additional staff after it expires.

On Monday, Nelson said the department’s calls for service continue to increase.

“We did roughly 2,750 calls — both fire and rescue — in 2017, and 3,042 in 2018,” he said.

Since his request in 2016, he said, he has added one firefighter position to his staff.

Adding six staff members, two to each shift, would allow two ambulances to be staffed to cover the eight communities it serves, and it would allow two firefighters to be available to respond to fires.

“That would give us the opportunity to do some things we’re not doing, like building walkthroughs and prevention and education,” Nelson said.

He said he’s researching the deadlines for the SAFER grant and whether the grants can be renewed.

In August 2018, the Bangor Fire Department was awarded $515,891 for hiring.

Councilors are also expected to:

  • Award four tax acquired property bids
  • Consider a special event permit for the American Lung Association’s Trek Across Maine on June 16
  • Hear a presentation on the fourth quarter 2018 finance report
  • Accept minutes for the January City Council meetings

Two executive sessions are scheduled to hear a request from a property owner to buy back a tax-foreclosed property and procedural planning for the six-month review of the city manager.

The Gardiner City Council meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council chamber at 6 Church St.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632
[email protected]
Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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