AUGUSTA

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee got their first look at a new report on problems with recruitment, retention and training for volunteer firefighters across Maine.

Lawmakers also discussed how to best move forward with establishing a central training facility for volunteer fire departments and how to best fund that effort.

The committee voted to table taking action while members worked to develop specific legislation, which may include as much a $20 million borrowing package that would go to voters for approval, in order to build a new training facility in central Maine.

During the summer and fall of 2015, a seven-member working group met three times to gather information about what was driving an overall decline in the number of volunteer firefighters that most communities in Maine depend on for fire protection.

That working group offered a list of recommendations, including several law changes that would provide greater incentives for volunteer firefighters. Topping the list is a recommendation that the Legislature provide funding for a length of service award program that has already been established in state law but has never been funded.

Also on the list: Expand and implement state and local tax credits for volunteers as well as provide volunteers with workers’ compensation coverage from the state when they are en route to or returning from an emergency.

The working group also recommended legislation that would allow volunteer firefighters and medical first responders to join the state’s employee health program and suggested law changes that would further limit a volunteer’s liability when they are responding to an incident as well as when they serve as an incident commander or fire chief.

The group also recommended that local municipal governments also expand benefits for volunteers including everything from funding length of service award programs to providing liability insurance for volunteers to working with local firefighting unions so that professional firefighters may also serve as volunteers in their local communities.

Lawmakers on the committee discussed at length repeated attempts to establish a more centralized training center where volunteer firefighters from across Maine could obtain training in certification in a variety of firefighting skills.

Several lawmakers on the committee seemed to balk at a proposal that would filter another $200,000 toward a study aimed at developing a plan for funding and locating that facility but others seemed determined to move a bill forward aimed at finally funding the facility.

“What I’m grasping is that the recommendation isn’t necessarily to do another study but to start moving on things, is that what I’m seeing?” committee Co-chairwoman Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, asked.

Jeffrey Cammack, the executive director and legislative liaison for the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, said that was indeed what the chiefs were looking for.

“We are ready to go,” Cammack said. “We’ve studied this long enough, we’ve looked at it long enough.” He said the state and the association have been trying to get a central training facility since 2000-2001.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he too would like to see the state move forward with making that facility a reality, either through a bond that would go before voters or funding it through the state budget process.

Under the proposal, a central training facility, likely in Waterville, would be augmented by satellite facilities scattered throughout Maine.

“I’ve been supportive of this concept since I came here in 2009,” Burns told Cammack. “Why it hasn’t happened yet, I really don’t know, Chief.

“What I’m very concerned about is doing something that is going to sustain the fire services that we have in rural communities as well as municipal communities because what I understand is they are dropping off very quickly and my communities can’t stand that,” Burns said. “So we need to move ahead with something that’s going to facilitate those communities.”

Burns said he agreed the state didn’t need to study the issue any further but did say if there were gaps in the information the state should fill them.

“I don’t understand why we can’t move ahead,” Burns said. “This is a statewide problem and it affects me just as much as it affects the city of Augusta.”

Also weighing in on the matter was Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who said if any legislation comes forward to fund a training center, it should be a collaborative one between the state and municipal governments.

But, Gerzofsky said, it’s been a challenge to find that funding because consensus on how to go about establishing a state fire-training academy has been elusive.

“It’s been really a battle of this camp against that camp,” Gerzofsky said. “If we are going to study anything at all it should be around coming up with a creative way of looking at funding, regionalization and making this system work.”

The committee agreed to table action while it worked to come up with a specific legislation that could be presented to leadership for possible consideration in the weeks ahead.

Sunjournal.com



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