CHINA — Residents will vote on whether to provide stipends for volunteer firefighters at their annual town meeting in March, but not every one of the three fire chiefs in town says stipends will be effective.

The Board of Selectmen voted to put an article on the town warrant that would take up to $40,000 from the unrestricted fund balance and put it toward compensating emergency services personnel. The policy for paying those who volunteer for emergency services has not yet been decided by the board.

The idea to provide a stipend for the essential services comes at a time when fire departments across the state are struggling to recruit volunteers, especially younger ones.

China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault says he has 21 volunteers, but only five can actually fight a fire. The others are older or not able to participate on those calls, he said, although they still attend meetings and trainings.

“It’s been at least five years since we’ve taken any new members,” Theriault said. The department just got two new members under the age of 50, he said, which is encouraging, but they still have to go through training to qualify for firefighting.

Theriault said he didn’t want to give an opinion before the fire departments have their regular meeting and discuss the issue, but he did say that no one really knows how to fix the problem. He thinks it’s partly the new generation, he said, and how the digital world has “slowed down life.”

“In 10 years from now, our fire department is going to have hardly anybody under 60,” he said.

Theriault also knows people who work as paramedics but don’t volunteer their skills because they see no reason to do for free what they get paid to do, he said.

“Either you want to help your community or you don’t,” he said. “I don’t know how you can change that in people’s mindset.”

The issue will be critical in 10 years if nothing changes, he said. “You just won’t be able to fight fires.”

To fund a full-time, paid fire department for a town like China would cost between $300,000 and $500,000, he said, which is a big cost in a time when towns are trying to keep taxes low for residents while dealing with decreases in shared revenue from the state.

If you ask Dick Morse, fire chief at the South China Fire Department, a stipend isn’t the answer.

“A couple years ago it came up, and in our department we voted not to do that,” Morse said. “It’s not really effective. It just gives people money for something they would do anyway.”

In South China, the department hasn’t had much trouble recruiting volunteers, Morse said. They have about 24 on the roster now, and about 15 are trained for interior fire attacks. It’s mostly an issue of timing, he said, because most people work and have families, and that would stand in the way of fire departments even if they had stipends.

Morse said the work isn’t about money. People volunteer to help the community and because they like the organization they’re joining. He does see a problem with the amount of training and paperwork volunteers are required to do, though.

“You couldn’t pay enough of a stipend to make up for that,” he said.

Select Board Chairman Neil Farrington said he knows that China is a little different, given it has three fire departments and a rescue team that work privately. While the town gives them operating funds, they raise the rest through fundraisers or grants. This model has worked in the past, he said, when a lot of people were involved in each station and it was like a “club,” but it’s not that way anymore.

Farrington first thought of a stipend for the China Rescue team because the chief, David Herard, takes most of the calls. He worries about what would happen if Herard were sick or away one day when an emergency happened.

“We can replace a house or a property, but it’s the lives inside,” he said.

He then proposed a stipend for all emergency response personnel after researching what surrounding fire departments, like Vassalboro and Albion, are doing. Some provide stipend salaries to the chiefs and assistant chiefs, stipends for training and non-emergency work or per call stipends for firefighters, and others use a point system that will give firefighters a check at the end of the year.

“We’re at that time where volunteerism is declining every year,” he said.

Most firefighters in the country are between the ages of 30 and 49, according to a profile of firefighters released by the National Fire Protection Association in 2016.

While the report says there has been a steady increase in both career and volunteer firefighters across the nation since 1986, the number of volunteers per 1,000 population has been decreasing.

The number of firefighters in Maine dropped from 12,000 in the early 1990s to 8,000 at most, according to a 2015 Sentinel story that quoted Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

Madeline St. Amour can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: madelinestamour

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