Our rural fire departments statewide are facing a critical shortage of volunteers and it’s changing the way they provide services and increasing costs. Since next week is Fire Prevention Week, I took the opportunity to learn more.

I met with fire chiefs from much of York County, including Roger Hooper of Goodwins Mills, Steve Benotti of Sanford, Chris Young of Hollis, Dan Meehan of Lebanon, and Mark O’Brien of Ogunquit, and toured our York County Emergency Management Agency Facility in Alfred.

Here in Biddeford where I live, we are fortunate to have a full-time fire department with multiple staff members on duty 24/7/365. I have witnessed them at work — on everything from freeing a stuck elevator to providing safety coverage during a roof collapse in a heavy snowstorm. Their excellent reputation is well-earned.

By contrast, many rural departments have traditionally relied on volunteers to provide round-the-clock coverage. However, that’s getting tougher to do. All of the chiefs I met with said it is hard to schedule volunteers for overnights, particularly during the week. The chiefs often end up covering the shifts themselves, on top of their normal duties.

Adding to the challenge is a steady increase in call volume. That’s because most of our York County fire services have become “all-hazards” departments, meaning they will be dispatched for all types of calls, not just fires. Everything from cows in the road to an elderly person who has fallen out of bed to a fender bender will get the fire department called out. And culturally, whether it’s because of the reduced availability of health care, or that we’re all just getting older, citizens have become more likely to call for emergency assistance. That’s particularly true for EMS/ambulance services.

In fast-growing York County, that means volunteers who used to only get the occasional call every third or fourth night can expect to get dispatched almost every night. For a busy person working a full-time job, it’s just less and less practical to volunteer to cover multiple weeknights and not get much-needed sleep.

At the same time, training for volunteers has also become more demanding. The days of being handed an air pack and gear on the day you walk into the department are long behind us. Two hundred thirty hours of training — comprising about six months of evenings and weekends — are a starting point for most volunteers. Although this training keeps firefighters safe, makes them more effective, and comes with a nationally recognized certificate, fewer people can find the time to complete this training.

Luckily, there is a great spirit of cooperation among fire departments. They assist each other with mutual aid if a neighboring town is shorthanded. But that can come with consequences, too. Increased response times because of long travel distances are not good when a fire has broken out or if there’s a medical emergency. To address this, several departments have started paying per diem fire and EMS staff to cover shifts when trained volunteers are not available. Others have hired a few full-time firefighters to be assured of coverage.

Our firefighters are always out in the community as well. Members of almost every York County Fire Department will be in our schools next week providing fire safety training, keeping students involved and educated on fire prevention and awareness. Here’s what I learned: the number one thing you can do to keep you and your family safe from fire at home is to test and update your smoke alarms. Why not do that today?

Volunteering for your local fire/EMS department is a great way to get involved in your community. The training is valuable, and I’m told that nothing beats the camaraderie and the feeling of helping your friends and neighbors. Plus, if more citizens don’t volunteer their time, residents will have to reach deeper into their pockets, whether it’s through insurance or taxes. Please consider becoming a valuable fire/EMS volunteer yourself, and during national Fire Prevention Week, let’s all say thank you to our fire and EMS departments and their hardworking staff and volunteers.

— Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford is an independent state representative serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and is a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Outside the Legislature, he is chair of the Biddeford Solid Waste Commission. Marty hosts a podcast for Maine entrepreneurs called “The Grow Maine Show.” Find it on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, and sign up for legislative updates at www.growmaine.com or facebook.com/repgrohman.

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