When Gardiner elected officials meet later this week, they will again take up the issue of staffing in the Gardiner Fire Department and consider whether to create a committee to review department staffing.

At issue now is whether councilors will authorize Fire Chief Al Nelson to submit an application for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will help pay to hire additional firefighters for the career department in the southern Kennebec County city.

Nelson proposed seeking these funds earlier this year after some residents and elected officials said they were concerned about how Gardiner firefighters respond to fires in the city. At that time, At-Large Councilor Tim Cusick expressed frustration that Gardiner firefighters are out on ambulance calls when fire calls come, leaving the city to rely on its mutual aid and automatic aid partners to respond from neighboring towns and Augusta.

The city staffs four firefighters per shift. The firefighters, who are also paramedics, also staff the Gardiner Ambulance Service, which covers Gardiner and seven neighboring communities. The Ambulance Service, which operates as an enterprise fund, pays for 65 percent of firefighter salaries, and the city of Gardiner pays 35 percent.

When both ambulances are out on calls, that leaves the fire station without staff. And ambulance calls may result in taking someone to hospitals in Augusta, Brunswick or Lewiston, which extends the time firefighters are out of the station. If a fire call comes in, it’s covered by departments from communities that Gardiner has either mutual or automatic aid agreements.

While the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants program is designed specifically to provide funding directly to fire departments to help maintain or increase staffing, the grants are for limited periods and require municipalities to pay a small share of the cost in the first two years and a greater share in the third and final year of the grants.

Nelson initially proposed adding two firefighters per shift for a total of six additional firefighters; he also proposed adding one per shift.

These decisions come at a time of competing deadlines. The grant is due by March 22, with a funding decision possible in three or four months. And the city budget for the upcoming fiscal year is starting to take shape.

At the City Council meeting two weeks ago, City Manager Christine Landes said the proposed budget would have to include the city’s share of those costs, even though the funding decision is not expected until after the budget is approved.

“I would put in the budget (the share) for the SAFER Grant,” Landes said.

But without the grant, the city cannot afford to add three firefighters, she said, with expected increases for emergency dispatching services among other things.

At the last meeting, George Trask said the city ought to develop its own corps of volunteer firefighters.

“Just a short time ago, we had 16 call members; now we’re down to three,” Trask said. “There’s something wrong with that. When you have the outlying towns, like Pittston, Randolph and Chelsea, they’re all volunteers. How come they can do it, and we need six (full-time) firefighters?

“If we can’t get volunteer firefighters, there’s got to be a reason for it. The best thing to do is to look for that reason,” he added.” Lots of people work from home today. They can shut down their computer and go fight a fire if they have to, and I believe they would.”

Trask also suggested recruiting from the high school and bringing those recruits up through training to staff call crews.

“Six more firefighters is just not the answer,” he said. “The numbers don’t add up. In 2017, we had $233,000 worth of losses to fire; 2016 was a big one, about $1.8 million.”

Other losses were far less, Trask said, and they don’t justify the fire department Gardiner has.

“I don’t think you ought to be even considering the SAFER grant,” he said. “We can’t afford six people period. We have enough in our fire department.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, city officials are expected to weigh the merits of applying for the grant, even if they may turn down the funds later, and talk about putting together an ad hoc committee, made up of the fire chief, a member of the City Council, a representative from a fire department in a neighboring town and two residents.

City elected officials are also expected to:

• Hear a presentation on Gardiner Main Street by Executive Director Piper Panzeri

• Consider appointing Kristopher McNeill to the Gardiner Historic Preservation Commission for a term of three years

• Review upcoming tax-acquired properties being sent to bid

• Consider a request from the Sidewalk Committee about Spring Street reconstruction

• Meet Thomas Fiorelli, Gardiner’s new economic development director and planner

• Approve the minutes of the Feb. 20 City Council meeting

An executive session for the six-month review of City Manager Christine Landes also has been scheduled.

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

 

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

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