Maine has one of the highest percentages of volunteer firefighters in the country. But their ranks are dwindling, as training requirements, duties and the number of calls have increased.
The outcome of this double whammy was all too evident during a house fire a week ago Wednesday in Hollis. Only three people initially responded to the blaze, and although everybody got out safely, the structure was a total loss.
This shortage in personnel has become a nationwide problem. And just as there’s no one reason for it, there’s no one solution to it. But studies have yielded many suggestions for attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters, centering on regionalization, recognition and financial benefits.
These and other ideas should be the focus of a joint effort by Maine’s fire departments and local, county and state officials to develop and implement measures to address the dearth of recruits. Public safety depends on it.
About 95 percent of Maine’s fire departments are made up entirely or mostly of volunteers. So as the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide continues to decline (it’s down 13 percent since 1984, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council), many Mainers’ first line of defense against emergencies feels the impact.
What’s causing the shortage? More people work out of town, making them unavailable to respond to fires in their hometowns. More families rely on two wage earners, cutting into the time for volunteering. More calls are coming in, including an increasing percentage of emergency medical reports.
There’s also the training commitment: To become certified in Maine, a volunteer firefighter needs 244 hours in the classroom, as well as homework, and training in everything from handling hazardous materials to operating fire equipment.
How to help? Elected officials could set aside funds for incentives like retirement stipends, tuition breaks and better protective clothing and firefighting equipment. For their part, fire departments themselves could put in place junior orientation programs to recruit members and recognition programs to retain them.
Regionalizing fire protection is a more long-range, systemic change that could be a boon for struggling towns. They’ve already turned to mutual aid fire departments, which agree to respond by request to emergencies in other communities. Expanding on this concept, there could be county fire departments that break down large geographic areas into manageable sections.
Acting on these ideas won’t be easy: Governments at all levels are pressed for money, and collaboration among municipalities is a tough sell in a state with a history of local control. But changing frameworks are needed in changing times – especially when lives are in the balance.