Volunteer Fire Depts. Struggling To Survive

By Tom Walsh

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 Firefighters Association.

“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.

Alden Tracy Jr.

“It’s a lot of time and effort and a lot of time away from family. I know. I do it.”

Jamie Sarna, 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.

“It has 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 attends Liberty School, but it’s unusual to see people his age involved.

“Penobscot is 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.”

Eastbrook Fire Chief Rick McNeil has had little luck recruiting.

 “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 enough.”

Staffing the Winter Harbor Fire Department has been a problem since the Navy base there closed in 2002.

“Recruiting 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.”

Webber said 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.”

It’s an 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.

Tracy, 59, 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 department.

“I joined 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.

“We’ve tried 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.”

Tracy 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 neighbors.”

Hancock Fire 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.

“We’ve had 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.”

Not Just Hancock County

Recruiting and retaining volunteers is a challenge confronting communities throughout the state and the nation.

 Of the 432 fire departments in Maine, all but five — Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, 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.

Of the 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 Council.

The Ellsworth 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.

“Our 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.”

Recruiting 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

Richard Cyr 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.

“We don’t have any more young people,” Cyr said. “Young people in 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.”

As volunteers leave their local fire departments because of age, Cyr said, they’re not being replaced by young blood.

“The ones 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.”

Retention of trained volunteers can be as much of a problem as recruiting new volunteers, Ellsworth’s Deputy Chief Marshall says.

“The number 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.”

As a recruitment and retention incentive, Cyr said, the National Volunteer Fire Council is lobbying for a federally funded retirement program for volunteer firefighters.

“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?”

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