The State Fire Marshal’s Office is now only dispatching its investigators after regular business hours to fire scenes that involve death, serious injury or suspicion of arson, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said Wednesday.

Citing recent budget shortfalls, Morris said he ordered the new protocol in an effort to prioritize calls and reduce overtime expenses. But Morris downplayed the impact of the decision.

“It’s based on the fiscal challenge,” Morris said. “But the Fire Marshal’s Office has not been reduced. It’s not much different — we’re just not responding to every fire in the state on an overtime basis.”

But some fire officials, including the Waterville fire chief, say they’re worried about the new policy creating confusion and depriving smaller communities of needed assistance.

The new protocol, which Morris said has been in place for the last couple of weeks, came to light following an apartment fire Monday night in Waterville. Fire Chief Dave LaFountain said he was surprised to learn about the protocol for the first time when he called the Fire Marshal’s Office shortly after arriving on scene, but was told an investigator would not be sent.

LaFountain said firefighters heard rumors that the fire had been intentionally set, but didn’t have any evidence at first. He called back later after police interviewed witnesses who reported seeing two boys set the house on fire. Fire marshal investigators were at the scene within an hour or so, LaFountain said.

LaFountain said the new protocol, and how it came as a complete surprise to him in the middle of fighting a fire Monday night, raises concerns.

“These are people that have special talents and equipment and do services for us we can’t do for ourselves,” LaFountain said. “They’re legally the agency that will take a criminal investigation, gather the evidence and take it to court to see that people are adjudicated. These are specialized people. They’ve always been a telephone call away, but now it’s going to be a little more difficult.”

Morris, however, said those concerns are unfounded. He said investigators will still respond as soon as possible, 24 hours a day, to the most serious fires. Previously, investigators have been contacted for calls at all hours unless local firefighters can determine that the cause is accidental.

Morris said the policy will be soon outlined to fire chiefs in a letter.

“If it is a routine fire that happens in the middle of the night, we will respond the next day during normal working hours to eliminate the overtime burden,” Morris said. “The big issue here is there has been no cut in the Fire Marshal’s Office. We’re still doing our job, but we’re just not going to send somebody out at 2 o’clock in the morning to stand around at a not-suspicious fire. We have to prioritize, considering the budget.”

Morris said the Fire Marshal’s Office has an annual budget of $4.9 million and about 40 employees, of which 12 are investigators. The office is mainly funded through a combination of what state officials call special revenues: through a portion of fire insurance that’s paid by homeowners and businesses, and from inspectors who conduct reviews of new construction.

During the economic downturn, those projected revenues have taken a nosedive, according to Morris, causing a shortfall of several hundred-thousand dollars.

Gov. Paul LePage addressed that shortfall recently in his 2012-2013 state budget change package, which tapped into the general fund — instead of the Fire Marshal’s Office — to pay for three inspector positions and half the cost of an office assistant, Morris said. That funding amounts to about $250,400 in 2011-12 and $256,800 in 2012-13, according to the budget package.

Morris said the office is losing two investigators, through a retirement and a resignation, but is set to get another fire marshal starting next year whose duties will include fireworks inspections. The sale of consumer fireworks becomes legal in all municipalities, unless a city or town votes to prohibit them, starting Jan. 1.

In addition, Morris said Fire Marshal John Dean is looking to rearrange work schedules to provide more coverage without investigators accruing overtime. For example, one investigator has volunteered to work night shifts at regular pay, Morris said.

Doing more with less

Members of the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission, which recommends changes to the state’s fire protection system, offered mixed reactions Wednesday to the new protocol.

Commission member Vicki Schmidt, who is a delegate to the Maine State Federation of Firefighters, a firefighter and training officer for Buckfield and fire instructor, said she recognizes the state Fire Marshal’s Office is under pressure, but thinks its problems are being made worse by budget decisions. Even as coverage is being scaled back, the office will become further burdened by the new fireworks law and recent changes to state building codes, she said.

“The motto of fire marshals is to fight fire with facts,” Schmidt said. “They have been totally gutted on any ability to gather facts. It’s very sad, because there are a lot of fires and we’re not going to have the facts. A lot of fires are probably arson, but they (investigators) are moving from fire to fire. This whole ‘do more with less’ is just atrocious.”

But Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, who is also a commission member, said he supports the decision and trusts the state’s fire officials.

“We have to balance everything we do in this state,” Saviello said. “We have to be careful, judicious and smart about what we do and we have to manage our business, and I think that’s what John Morris is trying to do.”

Rep. Michel Lajoie, D-Lewiston, vice chairman of the commission and a former fire chief, said he remains concerned about funding for the Fire Marshal’s Office. Two years ago, he said, legislators depleted some of the office’s funding in order to balance the state budget and recent cutbacks put it in a worse situation.

“We knew when we left this past legislative session that funds would be extremely low and overtime would be curtailed,” Lajoie said. “However, I don’t think we knew it would be this soon. It puts the Fire Marshal’s Office in a precarious position. We’re dealing with peoples’ lives here and it’s not something we can shrug off.”

Even so, Lajoie said the impact of the new policy shouldn’t be too dramatic, because state investigators are often juggling large workloads and can’t always respond to all fires right away.

LaFountain hopes the new policy is consistent and it’s understood by local fire officials.

“You have to know the rules of the game in order to play, and it felt like the rules just changed on us,” LaFountain said.

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

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