AUGUSTA — City councilors have approved a proposal to seek federal funding to hire 12 additional firefighter/paramedics, with some councilors supporting a proposal to add four more positions to the budget.

The additions would bring  the number of firefighters/paramedics the city might hire to 16 in order to address a staffing shortage that officials fear could put residents’ safety at risk and lead to overworked firefighters/paramedics leaving the Fire Department.

The federal grant does not require a local match but runs out in three years, after which it would be on the city, if it wishes to keep the positions that Fire Chief Dave Groder said are critically needed. Between salary, benefits and training, each position would cost the city about $108,000, or almost $1.3 million for 12.

Groder and Deputy Chief Steve Leach said staffing now is so tight within the Fire Department that when all the city’s ambulances are out on calls, there is only one driver for each of three fire trucks and one other firefighter, leaving as few as four firefighters to respond to a building fire.

They said the city in 2008 had 11 firefighter/paramedics per shift and responded to 995 fire calls and 3,060 EMS calls.

The department now has 12 firefighter/paramedics per shift and responded in 2021 to more than 1,400 fire calls and 6,016 EMS calls.


“Our staffing hasn’t really changed in 13 years, and we’ve doubled our workload,” Groder told city councilors. “The department has no depth. The minute one person takes a day off, we’re at bare bones, and the minute a second person takes a day off, we’re at overtime automatically.”

As a result, the members of the Fire Department racked up more than 21,000 hours of overtime last year, up from slightly more than 12,000 in 2018.

Groder said for the department to have at least the contracted minimum of 11 workers on a shift, some firefighters are required to work overtime. And if no one volunteers for overtime, it is assigned to a firefighter, who is then ordered to work that time.

Groder said in 2016, the Fire Department had 80 “order-ins.” Last year, it jumped to 341.

Leach said of the top three firefighters on the list to be ordered to work overtime, one last year was ordered to do so 17 times, one 15 times and one 14 times.

“So, once a month, they were being told, ‘Sorry, you can’t go home,'” Leach said of the firefighters ordered to work overtime to keep the department’s fire trucks and ambulances minimally staffed.


Groder and Leach showed councilors data indicating Augusta is understaffed compared to Fire Departments in other Maine cities, based on the number of calls.

Last year, Augusta, with a minimum staff of 11 per shift, responded to 7,423 calls, compared to:

• Auburn’s minimum of 14 per shift responding to 5,800 calls.

• Bangor’s 18 responding to 9,700 calls.

• Biddeford’s eight responding to 5,158 calls.

• Brunswick’s nine responding to 4,201 calls.


• Sanford’s 11 responding to 3,945 calls.

• South Portland’s 14 responding to 5,641 calls.

Groder initially sought city councilors’ permission to apply for a grant to hire eight firefighter/paramedics, but, after a two-hour workshop last Wednesday on the department’s lack of staff and the potential consequences of that, councilors voted 8-0 at a special business meeting Thursday night to authorize city officials to apply for funding to add 12.

“After the meeting, we’d pretty much decided that at least 12 positions would be more adequate” than the initially proposed eight, Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud said. “If we get the grant, these positions will be paid for up to three years.

“We really don’t have any choice. Our citizens need fire protection, ambulatory protection. These are crucial pieces in our city. Personally, I think it’s an investment in our community that we can’t turn a blind eye to.”

Groder said the staffing issue is a regional and statewide crisis, and a shortage of staff members at other area rescue services, such as Delta Ambulance and Winthrop Ambulance, adds to the concern because when those services do not have enough staffing to respond to a rescue call, Augusta is often asked to handle it.


Even if Augusta gets the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant, city officials anticipate it will be a challenge to find 12 qualified firefighter/paramedics due to a lack of public safety workers.

Groder said the Fire Department lost four firefighter/paramedics last year due to the requirement that Maine paramedics be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The city has since hired three new workers, including former Augusta firefighter Greg Coniff, who came out of retirement to rejoin the Fire Department. He said the department has received only two applications for the vacant fourth position, neither of whom was qualified.

Groder said he fears members of the Fire Department might go elsewhere, where the workload is less.

Michaud asked what would happen if the city ignored the mandate requiring paramedics be vaccinated.

City Manager Susan Robertson said the city would be breaking the law.


Leach said it would be a violation of Maine EMS rules, and punishment could impact the city’s EMS license, although the punishment would  likely begin with fines.

At-Large Councilor Abigail St. Valle said COVID-19 remains a major issue and many who live in Augusta have gotten sick with the virus.

“I don’t think it behooves us to try to go around that mandate,” St. Valle said. “We should have firefighters and ambulance service (workers) who are vaccinated to protect our citizens.”

Ideally, Groder said, the Fire Department would add 16 new firefighter/paramedics to get to an adequate staffing level. Some councilors supported adding four more firefighter/paramedic positions to the budget, in addition to the 12 sought for the grant.

While there was no vote on the proposal, all eight city councilors agreed to allow the city to apply for the SAFER funding to add the 12 positions.

Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said Augusta should put money aside so in three years, when the grant funds would be scheduled to run out, the city has money to keep the firefighter/paramedics on the job without having to increase the budget.

Robertson said a 1% tax increase would generate between $320,000 and $330,000 a year. Thus, if it costs $108,000 to hire and train a firefighter/paramedic, a 1% tax increase would pay for three additional firefighter/paramedics.

“From a fiscal standpoint, we’re going to be looking at this carefully and taking our time and making sure we fund this correctly,” Lind said. “It is a grant. The money is going to run out. We’re all aware of that.

“But when you weigh the needs and safety of our citizens versus us working through some budget numbers, it’s really a no-brainer that we need to bring these people on board and protect everyone.”

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