Gardiner city officials will continue to consider a proposal by Fire Chief Al Nelson to expand staff at the Fire Department at the City Council’s Feb. 20 meeting — and city residents will have the chance to weigh in.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Nelson brought a proposal to add six firefighters — two per shift — to his staff, paid for in part initially by a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Our department is the poster child for this grant,” Nelson said at the council meeting, “It’s designed to increase staffing, period.”

The cost of adding six firefighters is estimated at $464,531.73 a year. Even with the three-year grant, which Gardiner is not guaranteed to get, the proposal comes with a large price tag. In the first two years, the grant pays for 75 percent of the wages and salaries of the six firefighters and the city pays 25 percent. In year three, the grant pays 35 percent of the wages and benefits. The grant can be applied for more than once.

Currently, the Gardiner Fire Department has enough staff members to schedule four firefighter-paramedics per shift. They respond to fire calls in Gardiner and in communities with which Gardiner has mutual or automatic aid agreements. And they respond — two people per rescue truck — to rescue calls in Gardiner and the seven other communities Gardiner Ambulance serves, which can include patient transport to hospitals in the region.

When both rescue trucks are called out, no one is in the Gardiner fire station to respond to fire calls. In the analysis he completed for councilors, Nelson calculated that during 2018 alone,  the fire station was uncovered 610 times for a total of 634 hours while responding to 3,019 fire and rescue calls. During 2015, the department responded to 2,613 calls and the station was left uncovered 486 times.

With the year-over-year increase in the number of both fire and rescue calls, Nelson said he doesn’t foresee a decrease in those numbers. And if the urgent care facility proposed near the Libby Hill Business Park is built, he anticipates that will drive even more rescue calls for the ambulance service.

“What I’d like to do is add two people per shift, one to an engine and one to the ladder truck,” he said.

Nelson would not change how the ambulance calls are handed by adding a third ambulance, except on the rare occasion when a third rescue may be needed.

“When everyone is in the station,” he said, “now, instead of showing up with four people, I’ll have six. That may not sound like a lot, but man, you can do a lot with two more trained people.”

Nelson said four firefighters aren’t enough to cover the two-in, two-out rule.

“With four people, we legally can’t even go into a building, unless there is an imminent danger to life,” he said. “If someone gets hurt, it’s an absolute nightmare.”

At-large Councilor Tim Cusick had asked to schedule a discussion about Fire Department staffing on the council agenda after hearing concerns from city residents about fire response in the city — particularly when departments from other communities are the first on the scene of a house fire because Gardiner’s staff is out on ambulance calls. Not only is the response time longer, but the firetrucks that Gardiner taxpayers have paid for also remain unused at the station.

“We are encouraging economic development to bring things into the city,” Cusick said. “If we can’t protect them, that might affect, someday, a business coming to our city.”

The surrounding communities have volunteer fire departments, he said, and rely on Gardiner’s fire response if their own firefighters work out of town and are unable to respond to calls.

And they struggle to recruit and retain volunteers, he said. Gardiner currently has three volunteers; when Cusick worked for the city years ago, he said, it had 30.

“I know it’s an expense. It’s going to be an expense,” he said. “But if someone’s house burns flat to the ground because we’re not there, I would expect to see them here in front of the council saying, ‘What are we running here, anyway?'”

Other councilors asked whether adding fewer firefighters would be possible, and they requested financial data for different scenarios.

“I totally believe in safety,” District 1 Councilor Terry Berry said. “But if we start on this road, in four years, we’re not going to go out there and ship people down the road. They’re going to be here and we have to figure out how to pay them.”

Nelson said he doesn’t know exactly when FEMA is going to open up the grant for applications, but it may be in March if the federal government remains open past mid-February. Applying for the grant requires City Council authorization.

Mayor Pat Hart said the issue will be on the agenda for the Feb. 20 meeting for council action.

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

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