AUGUSTA — Attracting and retaining volunteers to fill the ranks of Maine’s many volunteer fire departments has gotten increasingly difficult, but lawmakers hope a bill to fund a pension program for volunteers could change that.

The Legislature approved a bill in 2017 setting up the pension program but did not fund it. A new bill sponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, would put $2.5 million a year in state funds toward a pension fund.

Herbig told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Friday that 40 other states have similar programs, and the ability to reward long-time volunteers with a small pension when they retire helps keep volunteer departments alive. Herbig said 93 percent of the state’s fire services depend on volunteers but the number of people volunteering has dramatically decreased in recent years in Maine and across the nation.

“Let’s be clear,” Herbig said. “This is a bill about rural Maine and our state’s refusal to do much about the fact that we’re struggling to recruit and retain firefighters for our communities.”

She said more small towns are losing their fire departments for lack of volunteers, putting property and lives at risk and also forcing homeowners to pay higher insurance premiums or property taxes.

Rep. Timothy Theriault, R-China, who is also his town’s fire chief, is a cosponsor of the bill. He said there is little doubt a pension program for volunteers, allowed under federal tax laws, would help him retain and recruit firefighters. Theriault said the town recently allowed him to begin paying firefighters a $10 stipend when they turn out for fire, and that has helped him recruit 10 new younger volunteers for a department with a median age of 62.

“It was an Antiques Roadshow going down the road,” Theriault said as he urged the committee to support the bill.

The pension system is known as the Maine Length of Service Award Program. About $300,000 of the annual funding would go to program administration, investment services and an annual audit, as required under the state law that established it. The rest of the funds would go directly to the accounts of participants in the program.

Volunteers would have to serve at least five years to become vested and would earn funds toward their pension based on the amount of time they attend training and organizational meetings and turn out for fires or other emergencies. The program would also be made available to volunteer emergency medical service providers and ambulance services.

According to testimony Friday, over the last 30 to 35 years the ranks of Maine’s volunteer firefighters have declined from 12,000 to about 7,000.

Fred Brewer, a volunteer firefighter from Damariscotta and an investment specialist, said a firefighter with 10 years of service making a minimum commitment under the plan would end up with a pension benefit of $37,000 at age 60.

“That’s a pretty nice thank you for just 10 years worth of service,” Brewer said. “And I know in my department we have a lot of people that have 30 or 40 years of experience, so for them it’s an even bigger benefit.”

Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler said his city has only five full-time paid firefighters on duty at any time, and the city depends heavily on on-call firefighters and volunteers. He said the volunteer pension program is long overdue.

Esler said the training commitments, time away from family and risks make it difficult to recruit volunteers.

“You don’t just show up with no experience or training and help your neighbor,” Esler said. “The fire service has turned into an all-hazards profession, requiring knowledge, skills and ability to do just about everything. Fires, vehicle extrications, hazardous materials, technical rescue, still and swift-water rescue, search and rescue, hostile events, fire investigation, public education and awareness, fire code and building inspections – and it should be noted this is just a partial list.”

Beyond allowing the cities and towns to provide critical emergency services, Herbig said, volunteer fire departments are also important to the cultural fabric of many small towns in Maine.

“I grew up going to the Belmont Fire Department for chicken barbecues with my uncle because he was a volunteer firefighter,” Herbig said. “Our fire departments are more than emergency responders. They are our relatives, neighbors and integral members of our communities. They deserve better.”

The legislation will be the subject of a work session before the committee on Friday before it goes to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for consideration as part of the state’s next two-year budget.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

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