FARMINGTON — Faced with declining volunteer roster numbers, the Farmington Fire Department wants to add four full-time career firefighters to its ranks but town officials are reluctant, saying the hires will increase department expenses in the 2016 budget.

Farmington Fire Chief Terry Bell says he believes strongly that the department has reached the point that it needs full-time help because “people are just not coming through the door to join.”

“I just don’t know what else to do,” Bell told the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday night as he presented alternate staffing scenarios.

At a Jan. 5 selectmen meeting, the board asked Bell to draft alternate staffing scenarios that would reduce the budget request. Bell presented two alternate budget scenarios and a status quo budget to selectmen at their meeting Tuesday night.

Bell’s initial 2016 budget request totaled $452,751, a $51,238 increase over last year’s budget. The proposal included establishing four new full-time firefighter positions to make up for the department’s declining roster of per-diem and on-call firefighters. It has no full-time firefighters.

Town Manager Richard Davis said he was not in favor of adding full-time positions to the fire department, but that he didn’t have an alternative for how Farmington could address what he said has “generally been seen as a serious issue statewide.”

“I really don’t like having to do this but it may be the only option,” Davis said. “We’re adding more cost, obviously, more bureaucracy. It saddens me, (but) we may not have another choice.”

In March 2015, the Morning Sentinel reported that over the last 10 years, small fire departments statewide have felt the ramifications of shrinking rosters and aging firefighters. The result is that a department might not be able to get enough qualified and able manpower on the scene to put out a fire before the structure is lost while they wait for mutual assistance from other departments to arrive.

Last year, state fire officials were reluctant to call the condition of Maine’s small fire departments a “crisis,” but China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault was quick to call it just that in a recent interview.

“It’s at a crisis,” Theriault said. “There has been zero change.”

Theriault is also the District 79 state representative and member of the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission, which includes both legislators and those involved in Maine fire protection. The commission brainstormed ideas that would create support systems and incentives that aim to remedy the declining in volunteer firefighters.

Theriault said that these recommendations have been submitted to the Legislature to consider. He also said two bills, L.D. 164 and L.D. 500, that passed the Legislature last session but were not funded will be reintroduced during the current session.

The Maine State Federation of Firefighters proposed L.D. 164, which would have the state set up a financial rewards program and deposit money annually for firefighters to receive when they retire. Theriault, along with House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwisk, co-sponsored L.D. 500, which would allow municipalities to give small incentives such as property tax breaks to volunteer safety responders, including firefighters and EMTs.

ROSTER PROBLEMS

With four full-time firefighters, Bell said the Farmington department will be able to respond to fire calls with the necessary number of qualified firefighters.

In his proposal, two full-time firefighters/EMTs would work a 12-hour shift, supplemented by one per-diem or on-call firefighter working an eight-hour shift Monday through Friday. The full-time firefighters would work on an alternating basis of two days on and two days off.

Now, the Fire and Rescue department is staffed with 25 firefighters. Eleven of those are per diem, meaning they work alternating eight-hour shifts Monday through Friday with varying availability because most work other jobs. Per diem firefighters also have varied levels of training which, depending on their qualifications, limits what they can do in an event of a fire call, Bell said.

Bell said that while the combination of per diem and call firefighters has worked OK since the establishment of the program in 2007, declining rosters and a rise in fire calls are testing the reliability of the system. In 2015, the department responded to 434 fire calls, which Bell said is up from previous years.

Full-time firefighters “will be able to do everything and they will be guaranteed, this is their job,” Bell said.

Bell presented selectmen with a second draft of the four full-time firefighter budget, totaling $440,675, a $39,162 increase from last year’s budget. To decrease the costs from his initial proposal, Bell was able to lower eight line items including stipends, motor fuel, computer fees, insurance, personnel expenses, call firefighters’ wages and worker’s compensation.

Bell also presented a budget for adding three full-time firefighters, with a budget total of $32,978. This included the line item cuts made to the four full-time firefighter budget with more cuts to retirement and health insurance benefits because of less full-time staff.

“(We could) make that schedule work. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but we could make it work,” Bell said.

Wages for the full-time positions would be either $14 or $12.75 an hour depending on rank and experience, according to Bell. The proposed funding for full-time and per diem firefighters is $134,736 for both staffing scenarios.

Lastly, Bell included a budget proposal with no additional staffing but including the recent line item cuts, for a total of $387,334, a $14,179 decrease from last year’s budget.

Opinions over the proposals differed among town officials.

Selectman Michael Fogg was highly supportive of hiring four full-timers. His reasoning focused around the level and quality of public safety full-time firefighters could provide for Farmington, which he described as a population hub.

“We have a lot of stuff that needs to be protected,” Fogg said. “I don’t have a problem adding an additional $40,000 in 2016. (It’s) the direction we have to go … to protect ourselves.”

With adding full-time staff to a department, Davis is also concerned about the possibly of the staff organizing a collective-bargaining unit in the future.

Adding full-time firefighters to the department has only been brought up once, Bell said, 20 years ago. Since then the department has made do with the part-time and on-call staff they had. But members of the department are concerned how much longer this can work.

Fire Deputy Chief, Clyde Ross, expressed frustration that the department’s part-time and on-call roster is growing smaller and older without the addition of any full time firefighters. Of the 25 members on the roster, 10 are over 60 years old. The average age is 53.

In his 45 years with the department, Ross said he’s heard “‘We’ll do it next year, we’ll do it next year,” from the town. “This is not going to go away, I guarantee it. This is not a threat, this is reality,” Ross said.

A COMPLEX PROBLEM

At Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, Davis and a resident in attendance both referenced legislative measures as reasons to perhaps hold off on expanding the fire department to include full time staff.

Selectman Stephan Bunker, as a member of the fire department, abstained from the majority of the discussion but expressed reluctance in waiting for change to come from the state level.

“(I’m) not sure how quickly (changes) will come, if they will come at all,” Bunker said. “Issues at the state level are long-term.”

Tuesday’s meeting was simply to discuss alternatives to Bell’s initial budget and staffing scenario. Bell presented his three budget scenarios to the Budget Committee Wednesday night, but discussion at the meeting was short, according to Ross, who also serves as the Chairman of the Budget Committee.

Ross, who as a member of the Fire Department will abstain from voting on the department’s budget, said that committee members didn’t have many questions for Bell following his presentation and that members didn’t express if they were swayed one way or another.

Like the selectmen, the committee members want time to look over the proposals before making their ultimate recommendation.

“Both committees are mulling it over,” Ross said Friday. “They’re hedging, because nobody wants to take a stand.”

Selectmen are expected to vote Jan. 26 on their final recommendations on the entire 2016 budget, which is a proposed figure of $5.4 million, a two percent increase over last year. The Budget Committee will vote on their final recommendations Jan. 27. Once the final recommendations from the selectmen and the budget committee are made Davis plans to put together a Town Meeting warrant that will include the finalized budget. Residents will vote on the 2016 budget the annual Town Meeting on March 28.

In the meantime, Bell is asking anyone with questions about his proposal to add full-time firefighters to the roster to call or meet with him to discuss it.

“I hope people come in and see me,” Bell said. “Because it’s very complex what we’re up against.”