Some of the societal factors that make it difficult to maintain a healthy staffing level at Durham Fire & Rescue are beyond the department’s control, Fire Chief Bill St. Michel says.

But there are things – such as making it easier for the crew to attend meetings and training sessions – that St. Michel and his officers can do. Holding meetings that consume less of a volunteer’s time helps, he says. So Durham Fire & Rescue meets weekly at 6:30 or 7, for 11?2 hours.

“People prefer shorter meetings, and more of them,” St. Michel said. “That’s actually one of the biggest problems with staffing. They’re done with their days, and they want to head home for the night.”

Right now, Durham Fire & Rescue has some 25 and 30 active members, which is not quite at the level St. Michel would like. For the first time in several years, the chief will hold a recruitment night, on Thursday, Nov. 5, beginning at 7, at the station on 615 Hallowell Road.

“This level would be good enough for just fire,” St. Michel said, “but not for fire and (emergency medical services). We need to bump our roster up by another five or six active people. We need personnel. We’re getting to be at the problem stage.”

And Durham is not alone in facing a shortage of on-call, per-diem crew members. Neighboring Pownal also has issues with recruitment, according to Fire Chief Jesse Peters. Just last week in Cape Elizabeth, Fire-Rescue Chief Peter Gleeson proposed a plan to add at least one full-time paid staffer after 13 on-call responders resigned in the last three months.

Peters said it’s a simple case of fewer people being willing to complete the necessary training and answer the fire/rescue calls.

“I think people’s lives are a lot busier than they used to be, with sports and things,” he said. “Our numbers are dwindling, and there’s nobody coming up to fill those slots.”

Freeport, meanwhile, has an hourly paid staff in addition to Fire Chief Darrel Fournier, who is out on unpaid medical leave, Deputy Fire Chief Paul Conley and eight companies, as well as two volunteers.

Even in Freeport, recruitment is an issue, because full-time positions with benefits are not available, Conley said.

St. Michel joined Durham Fire & Rescue in 1973, and has been chief since ‘93. There was a closeness among crew members in the old days that is somewhat missing today, he said.

“I don’t think it’s just the fire department. I think we need to adapt and change to where society is now,” he said. “The social aspect is not what it was. We haven’t done formal recruitment in a few years, but it’s time.”

Aside from St. Michel, three more people are on the fire and rescue town payroll: Keith Russell, deputy fire chief; Lisa Groves, EMS deputy; and Bill DeLong, assistant Emergency Management Agency director. Russell, Groves and DeLong make $1,000 a year, in addition to their on-call pay. St. Michel earns a salary of $56,328. The rest – the volunteers – are paid per call. They earn anywhere from $8.50 an hour to $13.50 for a hazmat technician.

“That’s not bad, compared to most places,” St. Michel said. “Small communities could not afford full-time pay and most people are doing this for other reasons. They need to want to be here.”

St. Michel does what he can through the town to provide small stipends for meetings and training – another aspect of fire and rescue that demands volunteers’ time.

“The time commitment – for the training, for the meetings and for certification – have played into it,” St. Michel said. “We’re supposed to train people according to commensurate duties. There’s a better job of oversight the last few years by the Department of Labor, through OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).”

St. Michel said he has no choice, from time to time, but to tell a volunteer that “it’s not working out” due to licensing and certification concerns.

The societal issues notwithstanding, demographics in Durham also make it difficult to recruit personnel, St. Michel said. Usually, new volunteers are young people who either are purchasing a home or renting, he said.

“There’s not a lot of first-time home buyers in Durham,” he said, “and there’s almost no rental property. “That’s where you find most of your members. There’s no quick and easy fix for that.”

Tim Giddinge, chairman of the Pownal Board of Selectmen, said that, like Durham, there’s a numbers problem with Pownal Fire & Rescue.

”It’s always been shorthanded, but now it’s worse than ever because young people don’t want to get involved,” Giddinge said. “It’s mostly middle-aged people who work out of town. You just don’t have the coverage during the day.”

Giddinge said that a recent recruitment of firefighters in town netted a small response.

“I think it’s an ongoing problem,” he said. “My feeling is this will someday lead to regionalization. But a regional fire department has the power of taxation and you lose control of your local budget. If it keeps progressing this way, we’re not going to have any choice.”

Peters earns a $10,000 salary as Pownal’s fire chief.

Local towns do enjoy the benefit of mutual-aid arrangements, whereby they can call a nearby town if they need help with a call. Pownal has mutual aid with Durham, Freeport and North Yarmouth.

Conley said he just hired 14 per-diem people for the Freeport department, though none live in Freeport. They work changing, often long, shifts, but it’s difficult to find such employees because the work is part time with no benefits, he said. They earn $15-$16 an hour.

“We’ve got positions to fill on two 24-hour ambulances,” Conley said. “It’s also tough to find people to make the commitment for six months of schooling, and for EMTs, it’s another six months.”

Freeport has a $516,105 fire and rescue budget for 2016. Fournier earns a salary of $87,427 and Conley makes $69,281.

Ken Desmond, president of the Maine Federation of Firefighters and state director of the National Volunteer Fire Council, has been involved in the occupation for even longer than St. Michel. The two are old acquaintances, and Desmond said he hopes to attend the Nov. 5 recruitment meeting in Durham.

Desmond, who became a member of the Winslow Fire Department in 1969, said that Maine has gone from 12,000 volunteer firefighters in 1985 to about 6,000.

“We’re 50 percent down,” said Desmond, who just returned from North Carolina, where he attended a week-long convention on recruitment and retention hosted by the National Volunteer Fire Council. “It’s a commitment. More hours of training are needed. And every family member is working. It’s hard to get a guy to commit when he’s taking care of his kids at home.”

Desmond said that the number of fire calls is up, and that emergency medical services is part of the mix.

“The safety equipment that needs to be used requires more training,” he said. “Retention is the key.”

Desmond said that the Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP), a pension for Maine firefighters and EMS responders, will help toward that end. L.D. 1154, “An Act To Establish the Maine Length of Service Award Program,” passed by the Legislature this year, provides annuity-based saving plans for volunteer fire and EMS personnel who meet minimum service requirements. Volunteers will have a program account that will be credited with an annual contribution as of the end of each year. The volunteer, in turn, will have participated in a level of volunteer activities set forth by the Maine Length of Service Award Program Board of Trustees.

When a volunteer reaches 60, and has attained a vested status in the program and the minimum requirements for at least five years, he or she will be paid contributions credited to a program account, plus the net investment income earned on those contributions.

“We’re trying to get some incentives,” Desmond said. “There has been no pension for volunteers.”

The situation in some rural sections of the state has become dire, Desmond said.

“We have some departments in the state of Maine that are closing because they can’t find volunteers,” he said. “Starks (near Madison) is one of them.”


A closer look

Durham Fire & Rescue will host a recruitment night Thursday, Nov. 5, beginning at 7, at the station on 615 Hallowell Road. The department is looking to add to its on-call ranks.

Anyone interested in joining Pownal Fire & Rescue can call Chief Jess Perers, 318-1997, or the town office at 688-4611.

In a training exercise, Durham firefighters battle a fire that is ravaging a camper. From left are Korey Curtis, Deputy Chief Keith Russell, Adam Salve and Ryan Kennett.

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