Chief David Coughlin of the Oakland Fire Department stands earlier this month among the town’s emergency vehicles at the fire station at 11 Fairfield St. Coughlin and other town officials seek to transform the Fire Department from a part-time volunteer force to full time. Residents are to make a decision on the proposal Tuesday at the annual Town Meeting. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

OAKLAND — Voters at Tuesday’s annual Town Meeting are to consider whether to spend $469,000 to turn the town’s part-time volunteer Fire Department into one that is full time, a request town officials say is prompted by steady increases in fire and medical calls and a decrease in the availability of on-call firefighters.

The request is one of 25 on the town warrant to be presented to voters at 6 p.m. at the Messalonskee High School Performing Arts Center at 131 Messalonskee High Drive.

If voters were to approve all warrant articles, including the Fire Department request, the municipal budget would be $6.18 million, an increase from the $5.18 million budget approved last year, according to Town Manager Ella Bowman.

With all items passing, the town’s property tax rate of $16.40 per $1,000 in assessed valuation would increase to $16.80, Bowman said Thursday.

The $469,000 request would cover firefighters’ salaries and benefits, and gear, uniforms and overtime pay as part of a full-time department.

Fire Chief David Coughlin’s plan calls for hiring four full-time firefighter/EMTs to work a rotating 24-hour schedule, seven days a week, which allows for a minimum of one firefighter/EMT to be at the station and available for calls 24 hours a day. That person would be supplemented during daytime hours by Coughlin, who has been chief 16 years, and the current per-diem staff and on-call firefighters and volunteers.

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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.

Coughlin and Bowman said it is increasingly difficult to get volunteer firefighters to respond to fires, accidents and other events, because they do so on their time off from their regular, full-time jobs, and it cuts into family time. Calls for service are also increasing from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., they said.

When people pay property taxes, they are paying for services, such as police and fire protection and road plowing, and when the town starts losing some of those services, taxpayers are not getting what they pay for, Bowman said. She said it takes a special person to get out of bed at 2 a.m. to help someone when it is 20 degrees below zero.

“Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’re seeing fewer and fewer of these people, and that’s why we’re asking to go to full time,” Bowman said.

She said when the new fire station was built two years ago at 11 Fairfield St., it was done with the knowledge the department would eventually have to expand to full time.

“That’s why we built a station that has bedrooms in it — we knew this was coming,” Bowman said.

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The town also is growing, with 22 new houses having been built and more people moving to Maine from more populated areas, requiring municipalities to have additional services, according to Bowman.

“The whole region is growing, and Oakland is as well,” she said.

The Town Council, budget and advisory committee and a citizen committee all voted to ask residents at the annual meeting to support the Fire Department plan.

At a public hearing April 12 on the plan, Coughlin and Bowman said the call increase and firefighter shortage is not unique to Oakland. Fire departments across Maine are experiencing the same problem. Oakland’s call volume has increased nearly 100% over the past 25 years, and the Fire Department now receives about 1,200 calls a year, according to Coughlin.

Where many call firefighters once worked in town and could leave their jobs to fight fires, that group of firefighters no longer really exists, Coughlin said. The COVID-19  pandemic and a lot of mandated annual training have also contributed to the lack of part-time firefighters.

Other proposed increases in the municipal budget are reflected in negotiated police raises, costs of materials, such as sand, and increased insurance and fuel costs, according to Bowman.

The proposed transfer station budget also reflects an increase of about $28,000, to be used for increased operating costs, new tools and a new yard truck to replace a front-end loader that has 15,000 hours on it and keeps breaking down, Bowman said.

Article 24 asks voters if they want to appropriate $666,330 from federal COVID-19 funds to repair the town’s aging and deteriorated sewer collection pipes, installed in the early 1900s.

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