WATERVILLE — When firefighters responded to a fire Oct. 18 at a multi-unit apartment building on Pleasant Street, so few firefighters appeared at the scene in the first several minutes that fire Chief Shawn Esler and his incident commander had to go into the building and help evacuate residents from the third floor, just above where a cooking fire had ignited a blaze on the second floor.

Seven on-call firefighters arrived, but because the crew was short-handed, firefighters struck a second alarm and requested firefighters from Fairfield, Winslow and Oakland, as well as the Rapid Intervention Team from Skowhegan.

Once the fire was contained, Esler emphasized the need for more career and on-call firefighters, saying the situation at the building that houses mostly elderly people could have been much worse.

“This is a specific example of staffing shortfalls here in the city of Waterville,” he said. “This could have very easily turned into a major fire with multiple people trapped.”

For multiple reasons, there is a shortage of firefighters not only in Maine but nationwide, and Waterville’s struggle to get enough firefighters to fires within the critical first 10 minutes is not exclusive to the city. It happens everywhere. Esler, like many fire chiefs, is worried for resident and firefighter safety.

Waterville officials are looking at equipment and staff shortfalls and exploring what can be done to find solutions.

“I do have confidence in the mayor, city manager and city council,” Esler said last week. “They’re going to take a good, hard look at this and come up with some solutions.”

Twenty-five years ago, about 12,000 firefighters worked in Maine; now, fewer than 8,000 work in the state, said Jeffrey Cammack, executive director of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association.

Cammack, former fire chief for the city of Bangor, where he worked for 33 years, says that years ago, people worked at jobs where employers allowed them to leave to fight fires, but that scenario has changed. For one thing, some people work three jobs to make ends meet, and it would be difficult for them to be on-call firefighters. The pay for on-call firefighters is barely minimum wage.

In addition, firefighters age out, fewer people volunteer and training requirements are more rigorous, said Fairfield fire Chief Duane Bickford.

Bickford said he does not see firefighter staffing issues getting better for departments in the near future.

“We have to figure out ways to produce revenue instead of everything coming from tax dollars,” he said. “For us, the only way to do that is to start transporting ambulance service, and the problem with that is, it’s very expensive to start up.”

Cammack also is working on solutions.

“We’re working on legislation that we’re submitting this session,” Cammack said. “We’re looking to create some type of retirement pool for call and volunteer firefighters to try to entice them to belong.”

 

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