SABATTUS — At about 3 p.m. Tuesday, the 614th emergency call of the year crackled into the Sabattus Fire Department. A local woman was dizzy, vomiting and otherwise showing symptoms of COVID-19. 

The Sabattus Fire Department’s new command vehicle in action during a recent storm. Sabattus Fire Department

In about half a minute, an on-duty firefighter was out the door on his way to the call. The fact that the emergency had a potential COVID angle was no big surprise. It has been a year where pretty much everyone and everything has been impacted by the virus and the Sabattus Fire Department is no exception. 

With one notable footnote: in 2020, despite all the difficulties of a pandemic, this department managed to thrive, and in all sorts of ways. 

They have a new fire chief, an assistant chief, for one thing, along with the addition of 10 experienced firefighters.

The receipt of four sizeable grants has allowed the department to obtain much needed equipment — a drone, gas meters and gear that will enable them to conduct rope and ice water rescues, to name a few. 

And two new trucks, one big, one small — but no less important. 

When Troy Cailler was hired as chief in March at the age of 27, he hit the ground running with a list of priorities in hand. Among them, he wanted a pay raise for his per diem firefighters and EMTs from $13 to $15 per hour. 

He wanted to retrofit a Ford F-150 from the police department to be used as a fire command vehicle, because the department didn’t presently have one — traditionally, the fire chief had always used his private vehicle for that purpose and private vehicles are not anywhere near properly equipped. 

Above all, Cailler wanted the town to purchase a new fire truck to replace the relatively ancient 1991 E-One Ford they were using, a rig with many shortcomings and one that was frequently in need of repairs — $11,000 worth of repairs in 2020 alone. 

The old truck had exposed wiring near the driver’s compartment, no foam system at all and it was required to be plugged into an air compressor to maintain the air brake system. The E-One Ford had badly limited space for gear, it had lap belts only and no air bags at all. 

Clearly there was much work to be done, but the timing was terrible. 

Cailler took over as fire chief on March 2. On March 4, he presented his budget for the new 2020 Pierce Saber fire engine, the command vehicle and the raise for the per diem firefighters to the Board of Selectmen. 

“We went through all the budgetary stuff — my first budget here — and then COVID hit,” Cailler says. “That kind of screwed things up. We no longer knew if we were going to have the money to do any of these upgrades.” 

For a while, as everybody scrambled to cope with the various woes brought about by COVID, the future of the department’s pressing needs was uncertain. It wasn’t until August that the town got to voting on the fire department upgrades. Once they did, there was satisfaction and the town fire department got a whole lot better. 

The new truck is a major upgrade from the old 1991 E-One Ford. The Pierce Saber holds 750 gallons of water, 30 gallons of foam and comes with a 1,500-gallon-per-minute pump. It has six hoses over the old truck’s four and the rig is also equipped with air bags, full seatbelts and rollover protection for the firefighters. 

Once the truck was delivered from Florida in the fall, Cailler had it equipped with additional tweaks, such as a deck gun and hose dividers. 

The Sabattus Fire Department’s new Pierce Saber engine. Sabattus Fire Department

The new command vehicle is no lightweight, either. Brought over from the police department, the truck is equipped with a variety of radios and a whole bunch of gear that won’t fit on the bigger truck: a drone, ropes, chainsaw, ice water rescue equipment and a system to keep track of firefighters on a call. 

The command vehicle will improve response time, Cailler says, and will ensure that crews have what they need when they’re out on emergencies. 

“It’s set up for whatever needs might arise,” the chief says. 

After taking over as chief, Cailler also got busy applying for grants and before the year was done, four of them had come through — Stephen King’s foundation provided $10,000 for rope and ice water rescue, and the department got another boost from an FM Global grant which allowed them to purchase the drone, expected to be used during water rescues, wild fires and similar emergencies. 

Through the grants, Cailler also brought in money to pay for a harness system, bailout kit and gas meters, among other things. 

And there are 10 new firefighters on board, just about all of them who come with experience from Lewiston, Lisbon and other fire departments and ambulances services.  

“We’re getting qualified people to join rather than having to train everyone from scratch,” Cailler says. ” They come with actual experience and job knowledge.” 

All in all in 2020, Sabattus paid $498,750 for the new fire engine and $25,000 for equipment, with grants covering additional expenses. And the upgrades come at a good time as the department responds to more calls than usual — 614 by Dec. 22, which was already well above the 543 calls handled in 2019. 

With winter upon us, Cailler expects the call numbers to rise even higher — Sabattus firefighters responded to 16 calls during the first snow storm of the year, for instance, and 27 calls during the second. 

It’s busy times at the Sabattus fire station, but in spite of that — and in spite of the perils of COVID-19 — the department has managed to come out ahead, to the benefit of the folks who live here. 

“We’ve had a lot of support from people,” Cailler says, “and the members here have been great. I know with COVID, a lot of people are down on their luck and whatnot, but for us, 2020 has been nothing but positive.” 

The Sabattus Fire Department obtained two new vehicles in 2020: an engine, right, and a command vehicle. Sabattus Fire Department


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