Oakland fire Chief David Coughlin stands among his fleet of emergency vehicles last week 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. An informational meeting was held Tuesday to give residents details of the plan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

OAKLAND — When Oakland’s new $2.6 million fire station opened in 2020, town leaders and residents discussed the future likelihood of transitioning from a part-time, volunteer department to a full-time one with firefighters on staff 24/7.

But they expected that transition might come in four or five years — not two years later.

At an informational meeting Tuesday to discuss moving to that full-time department this year, resident Pat Linehan asked what changed in two years.

Fire Chief David Coughlin said the plan was to build the station in anticipation of the future need.

“To be honest with you, we’ve needed this staffing even before this building existed,” he said. “One major thing happened and that was COVID. COVID has hit, for lack of a better word, the fast forward button for a lot of things.”

About 30 people turned out for the meeting at the fire station where Coughlin and Town Manager Ella Bowman explained that a steady increase in fire and medical calls and a decrease in the availability of on-call firefighters have prompted the town to seek the change.

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Voters at the annual Town Meeting on May 3 will be asked to approve $469,000 to cover firefighters’ salaries and benefits, as well as gear, uniforms and overtime pay.

Coughlin’s proposal 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 and 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 for 96 hours, for an average of 42 hours a week. Coughlin, who has been chief 16 years, 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. Calls for service also are increasing from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. when no one is normally at the station, he said.

Oakland Fire Chief David Coughlin discusses a proposal with residents Tuesday about moving from a part-time to full-time Fire Department. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

Angela Jurdak, a member of a citizens’ committee that voted unanimously to forward the plan to residents, said the number of calls for help when the department is closed, between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., convinced her a 24/7  department is needed.

“I want to say it was like 458 calls that nobody’s actually here,” Jurdak said.

Emergency calls made during the nighttime or early morning hours are forwarded to dispatchers elsewhere to coordinate a response.

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The Town Council and Budget and Advisory Committee also voted to ask residents at the annual meeting to support the plan.

If voters approve it, 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.

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 and businesses also are coming to both Oakland and the region, she said.

“We’ve seen tens and tens of millions of dollars being invested in the city of Waterville,” she said. “That’s attracted a lot of attention.”

The pandemic has prompted people to move to Maine, where the weather is stable, unlike places such as California, where there are wildfires, and southern states, where tornadoes occur, according to Bowman. Such growth requires more coverage.

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

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Where once a lot of call firefighters worked in town and could leave their jobs to fight fires, now that group of firefighters doesn’t really exist. The pandemic and a lot of mandated annual training have also contributed to the lack of part-time firefighters.

Resident Charlie Poulin asked whether property owner insurance rates would decrease if the town has a full-time department.

Coughlin said if a person’s insurance company uses a higher ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating, the insurance premium should drop.

“We just don’t know how much it will drop,” Bowman added.

Coughlin said town leaders can advise residents about the statistics and reasons the town should go to a full-time department, but the decision will rest with residents.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the voters and what level of risk they’re willing to accept for the community, or where they live,” he said.

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