SCARBOROUGH – For Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow, it was not an easy decision to make. After all, it essentially meant closing the same door he walked through when he joined the fire service in 1976, as a 16-year-old volunteer.

But times have changed in the past 37 years, he said Monday from his office at the Oak Hill Fire Station. Today, high school students have a multitude of athletic and after-school activities that were not offered by school departments in decades past. They also have increasing pressure to go on to post-secondary education, which often draws them away from Scarborough, sometimes never to return.

The result has been fewer and fewer new recruits each year to replace retirees. To combat a looming manpower shortage, Thurlow has recently instituted two changes, adding per diem shifts at night and, perhaps counter-intuitively, raising the minimum age to join the department from 16 to 18.

“We take on dozens of high school students who interview fairly well and promise they have the time and commitment to serve in public safety,” said Thurlow. “But after we incur expenses for physicals, gear and training, they don’t seem to have the time to respond to calls, and the majority wash out of the program within a few months of being hired.”

“They still end up with a community service line for their college resumes, and we end up with expenses and frustration due to their lack of follow-through and participation,” said Thurlow.

However, because no one wants to lock out youngsters with a true desire to serve their community, the Scarborough Fire Department will create an Explorer program for 15- to 17-year-olds, to launch this fall.

Much like a similar program in the police department, fire service exploring is run under the auspices of the Boy Scouts of America Learning for Life program. Open to both boys and girls, ages 14 to 20, it can be customized to the needs of each department. The Boy Scouts carry a comprehensive insurance package that protects both the student and the town, and pay costs for initial medical exams.

Lt. Glen Reed, a 15-year call firefighter assigned to the Pine Point station, will run the new explorer post. His 14-year-old son, Josh, will be its first member.

“Glen is a natural-born leader who will do an outstanding job with this new challenge,” said Thurlow. “This will give those younger students a chance to explore the fire service and see if it is really something they are interested in before they commit to applying as a full call member. It will also give us a few years to get to know them and make sure they will be a good fit for hiring when the time comes.”

Reed, who is the service manager at Patriot Subaru in Saco, is a former Eagle Scout who more recently has been a den leader in Cub Scouts.

“The Boy Scouts have always been near and dear to my heart,” said Reed on Monday. “My sons both did Cub Scouts but have just been very, very busy with sports and went down that path. But when they found out that we might be starting a fire explorer post, my older son was interested.”

“I have been in the car when my dad has had to go on a fire or rescue call, and it is something that I always wanted to do,” said Josh Reed on Monday. “He always told me I had to stay in the car. Hopefully someday soon I will be able to get out and help.

“I have always liked helping people, and I wanted to join the program so that I can learn the basics of being a firefighter and emergency medical technician,” said Josh Reed. “I’m not sure what I want to do for a career yet, but I definitely want to go to college. Schools look for students with community involvement. I thought this would be a good way to get my foot in the door in the medical or fire science fields and give back to the community at the same time.”

At the same time, Scarborough, like fire departments statewide, has been “graying out.” As fewer and fewer people are able to make the time commitment needed to fight fires, even on an on-call basis – basic certification now requires more than 200 hours of training, along with constant refresher courses – older members are retiring faster than they are being replaced by new recruits.

When Thurlow joined Scarborough Fire, each of the six call companies was allowed 40 members, including 20 “badge” members, 10 reserve members and 10 probationer members, or “probies.” Rosters were full, and moving up often meant waiting for someone to retire, move out of town, or worse.

“Oftentimes, you literally had to wait for someone to die in order to get on a company,” said Thurlow.

Today, Pine Point is the most active station, with 14 members. Others have five or six, barely enough to field a working fire crew.

“Obviously the days of 40-member companies are long gone, but I have been slow to accept that fact and look at better, more efficient options for our current hiring process,” said Thurlow. “These changes were done out of necessity due to declining response from call members during the hours when no per-diem coverage is available to take the trucks.”

“The number of times when a truck doesn’t respond or is delayed … has gotten to the point where we felt it was time we needed to revise our current staffing plan and look at making improvements within current budget constraints,” said Thurlow.

Glen Reed, right, 40, a 15-year call company volunteer with Pine Point-based Engine 4, will lead a new Explorer program to be launched this fall by the Scarborough Fire Department. Reed is pictured with his 15-year-old son, Josh, the first recruit.From a Scarborough Fire Department staffing analysis last updated in March, data show how calls for service have risen 232 percent in the last 32 years, from 1,048 emergency calls in 1980 to 3,874 in 2012. At the same time, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped 63.5 percent, from 318 to 116.

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