ELLSWORTH — Fire
departments throughout Hancock
County are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new volunteers.
It’s a concern
Franklin Fire Chief Bob Grindle hears again and
again as president of the Hancock County
“A lot of it
is a matter of people being spread too thin and
working as much as they can to pay all their
bills,” Grindle said. “Part of it, too, is the
time and effort you have to put into it because
of state and federal training requirements.
“It’s a lot of
time and effort and a lot of time away from
family. I know. I do it.”
a Penobscot volunteer and Hancock County’s
representative to the Maine State Federation of
Firefighters, said recruiting is becoming not
only more difficult but also more essential as
members of volunteer departments grow older.
become a huge issue as members get older and
older,” she said. “We just had a grand send-off
for Walter Durant, a member who retired at age
86. Our youngest member is 18, Chris Miller, who
School, but it’s unusual to see people his age involved.
doing pretty well, but a lot of departments,
especially in towns along the coast, don’t have
stable, year-round populations. In the winter
there’s just not a lot of people who can roll
when there’s a fire.”
Fire Chief Rick McNeil has had little luck
“We have 10
members, and we need 25,” he said. “There’s just
no incentive whatsoever for people to join a
volunteer fire department. Sure, there are
people in the community who appreciate and
respect those who do volunteer, but that’s not
Winter Harbor Fire Department has been a problem
since the Navy base there closed in 2002.
is always a problem,” said Fire Chief Robert
Webber. “We’re now up to 13 members, but we’ve
been as low as eight. While the Navy base was
here, I had 16 to 18, and there were always more
people in town.”
four of his department’s volunteers are
fishermen who might be miles offshore when
they’re needed most.
“We try to
alleviate that problem through an automatic
first alarm response agreement with Gouldsboro,”
he said. “In a town of 500, where people may
work 30 minutes away in Ellsworth, you can’t
always rely on there being five or six
volunteers in town.”
arrangement that’s been working well, according
to Gouldsboro Fire Chief Alden Tracy Jr. He
feels fortunate to have 27 active members, even
though that number has slipped in recent years.
joined the department at age 16. This is his
22nd, and last, year as fire chief, although he
intends to remain an active member of the
after I started tagging after my father, who was
one of the founders of the department,” Tracy
said. “But you don’t see that sort of thing
today. There are just so many other things for
kids to do today, and it takes two people, both
working, to make a family today.
advertising and having our membership talk
directly with younger people. We’ve found that,
if you try to talk somebody into doing it, they
might come in and see what it’s all about, but
they don’t seem to join.”
estimates only one in five potential recruits
makes a long-term commitment to the department.
“It’s not a
social club,” he says. “There is a lot of work
and requirements involved. But it’s like
anything else you do to help your town. Some
people serve on the school board. Others are
selectmen. It requires some sense of pride in
serving your community and helping out your
Chief Chris Holmes said his department has only
been able to keep its roster at 25 by involving
high school students as young as age 14.
four of these kids who were in our junior
program turn 18 in the last year and a half, and
they’ve all joined as members,” he said. “Some
are sons or daughters of members. Others joined
the junior program through word of mouth.
“I think one
of the reasons we’re keeping people is we’ve
done away with some of the good-old-boy stuff,”
Holmes said. “We run our meetings in a
democratic way that gives everyone a voice.”
and retaining volunteers is a challenge
confronting communities throughout the state and
Of the 432
fire departments in Maine, all but five —
Lewiston and Portland — rely on
volunteers totally or in part. The 8,300 members
of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters
include fewer than 1,000 paid firefighters.
estimated 1.1 million volunteer and paid
firefighters across the country in 2003,
800,050, or 73 percent, were volunteers. That’s
10 percent fewer volunteers than there were in
1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire
Fire Department is staffed by a blend of career
firefighters and volunteers. Its roster now
includes 32 volunteers and eight full-time
firefighters, including Fire Chief Robert
McKenney and Deputy Chief John Marshall.
volunteers carry pagers, but we never know how
many will respond to a fire call,” Marshall
said. “It’s a matter of who is available when.
Our career people can get the equipment to the
scene, but we rely on the volunteers in making
an attack on the fire.”
and retaining volunteers has become a growing
challenge for Marshall, who joined the
department as a volunteer in 1971 before
becoming a career firefighter 10 years later.
“The days of
giving a volunteer a pair of boots, a helmet, a
fire suit and a pair of gloves and saying
‘Follow those guys and you’ll learn what to do’
are over,” he says.
“For the last
15 to 20 years one of the issues that confronts
volunteers is the amount of time that goes into
mandatory training. Even before you start
firefighter training, there are 24 to 36 hours
of training required by the state safety office.
Once firefighter training begins, you’ll put in
an additional 60 hours between self-study,
classroom and hands-on training. There is easily
100 hours of training required just so you can
show up at a fire scene.”
Fewer Young People
of Madawaska, president of the Maine State
Federation of Firefighters, said recruiting also
is affected by the state’s ever-shrinking pool
of young men and women.
have any more young people,” Cyr said. “Young
Maine get out of high school, go
to college and don’t come back.
“The ones who
do stay, if they’re married, usually have kids,
with mom and dad working two or more jobs.
There’s just no time, and it’s hard to find
people willing to take two weeks off, using
vacation time, to do the training.”
leave their local fire departments because of
age, Cyr said, they’re not being replaced by
we’re recruiting to replace them are in their
late 30s or early 40s because none of the young
people are interested,” he said. “We wouldn’t
have a problem if we could recruit younger
people; there are just none to recruit.”
trained volunteers can be as much of a problem
as recruiting new volunteers, Ellsworth’s Deputy
Chief Marshall says.
of calls has gone down over the years,” he said.
“What happens with some volunteers is you train
them and train them, and they’ll have two fire
calls. They lose interest. The sense of
excitement and service just isn’t there.”
recruitment and retention incentive, Cyr said,
the National Volunteer Fire Council is lobbying
for a federally funded retirement program for
“If you’re on
the fire department for 20 years, you might get
$200 a month when you retire,” he said. “All the
senators and representatives are for this idea
100 percent, but the question is where do you
get the money?”