Oakland fire Chief David Coughlin stands among his fleet of emergency vehicles Tuesday at the fire station on Fairfield Street in Oakland. Coughlin and other town officials are seeking to transform the Fire Department from a part-time, volunteer force into a full-time one. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

OAKLAND — A steady increase in fire and medical calls and a decrease in the availability of on-call firefighters has prompted the town to seek a change from having a part-time volunteer Fire Department to one that is full-time.

An informational meeting about the plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 12 at the fire station. Town leaders intend to ask voters at the annual Town Meeting on May 3 to approve $469,000 to cover firefighters’ salaries and benefits, as well as gear, uniforms and overtime pay.

The proposal by fire Chief David Coughlin calls for hiring four full-time firefighter/EMTs to work a rotating 24-hour schedule, seven days a week. The plan allows for a minimum of one firefighter/EMT to be at the station and available for calls 24 hours a day, according to Coughlin, who is in his 16th year as chief. That person would be supplemented during daytime hours by Coughlin, the current per-diem staff and on-call firefighters and volunteers.

The full-time firefighter/EMTs would work 24 hours, be off for 48 hours, on again for 24 hours and then off 96 hours, for an average of 42 hours a week, according to Coughlin. He said it has become increasingly difficult to get volunteer firefighters to respond to fires, accidents and other events, as they do it on their time off from their regular full-time jobs and it cuts into family time. Calls for service also are increasing from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., he said.

“We want to continue to offer the services that our citizens have come to expect and deserve, and to do that we’re going to need some help, to supplement the on-call people,” Coughlin said.

Town Manager Ella Bowman said the town is in a good place financially and the move to a full-time department makes sense.

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Oakland fire Chief David Coughlin, seen Tuesday outside the fire station, wants to transform the department from a largely volunteer, on-call force to a full-time one. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

If voters approve the plan, the tax rate of $16.40 per $1,000 worth of valuation is expected to increase by 46 cents, Bowman said. It would be the first tax increase the town has seen in six years and would mean a person who owns a home assessed at $200,000, for instance, would pay an increase of $1.92 a week in taxes, according to Bowman. She said Oakland’s tax rate, also known as the mill rate, is lower than many surrounding communities.

The Fire Department just can’t find the help it needs, she said. People who work 40 and 50 hours a week have little time to do firefighting work on a part-time basis, she said.

“We’ve got three people over there handling 85 to 90% of the calls and if someone is sick, we’re in trouble,” she said. “This is critical that we maintain the same level of service that citizens of the town of Oakland expect from the Oakland Fire Department.”

Bowman said the town has seen a lot of growth, which adds to the need for a full-time department. Last year 22 homes were built in town, according to Bowman.

“The town’s growing and we have to grow with it,” she said.

The call increase and firefighter shortage is not unique to Oakland. Fire departments across the state are experiencing the same problem.

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Oakland’s call volume has increased nearly 100% in the last 25 years and now the department receives 1,200 calls a year, according to Coughlin.

The Town Council, Budget and Advisory Committee and a citizen committee all voted to ask residents at the annual meeting to support the plan.

Longtime Town Councilor Bob Nutting, who served on the citizen committee, said years ago there were a lot of volunteer firefighters who worked in the mills and other businesses in town and when the fire alarm blew, they’d drop everything and run to the fire. Those people are working now at Bath Iron Works, Sappi and other places miles away, according to Nutting.

“Now that group of people doesn’t really exist anymore,” he said.

Nutting said that when the citizen committee was formed, some members were in favor of having a full-time Fire Department, some were skeptical, and he was leaning toward supporting it. At the end, the members voted unanimously to recommend the plan to the council, which then also voted unanimously to support, Nutting said.

“You need to hire full-time firefighters, you need to pay them,” he said. “Fire, police and rescue protection is the prime role of government, in my opinion.”

The Town Meeting to decide the issue is planned for 6 p.m. May 3 at Messalonskee High School.

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