When a fire in a New Gloucester mobile home was reported in the middle of the night, it took three towns to muster enough firefighters to fight the blaze.

Poland Fire Chief Tom Printup, the first to arrive on scene because he lives nearby, said 12 firefighters responded to the fire on Quarry Road just after 2 a.m. Thursday. With the abandoned mobile home fully involved and already collapsing, firefighters could handle the call because they did not need to enter the building or rescue anyone.

But if the situation had been different, at least a half-dozen more firefighters would have been needed on the scene.

“We managed this morning, but if you had to do an interior attack or had someone injured, we wouldn’t have had enough,” Printup said.

The shortage of firefighters like the one experienced Thursday in New Gloucester is becoming more of an issue in towns and cities across the country and is especially noticeable in Maine towns that depend on volunteers and call force firefighters. Fire departments across the state, especially in small rural towns, are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters, Printup said.

“Staffing levels in fire service across the country are at an all-time low,” Printup said. “With the training that’s required by even volunteer firefighters to maintain certification, no one has time. We try to recruit and do our best to maintain levels and staff, but people just don’t want to volunteer anymore.”

Twenty-five years ago, about 12,000 firefighters worked in Maine. Today, there are fewer than 8,000 working across the state, the Maine Fire Chiefs Association says.

Saco Fire Chief John Duross, president of the association, said the problem touches communities across the state, and “there is not one answer or simple fix” to address the issue.

“The problem is lack of available staffing at volunteer, on-call and career levels across the state, but there isn’t one single reason,” he said. “There are a number of issues that are different for each community as far as why people aren’t signing up to be members of their fire or EMS departments. All of public safety, including law enforcement, is struggling to recruit members.”

During its last session, the Maine Legislature considered several bills to address the shortage, but none was signed into law. A bill that would have set aside $2.5 million for pensions for volunteer firefighters was carried over to the next session. And a bill to offer firefighter training for credit at high school career and technical education programs was killed by the Senate.

The Legislature in 2017 approved a bill setting up a pension program – which is allowed under federal law – but did not fund it. Lawmakers who sponsored this year’s bill say the pension program is needed to help volunteer departments attract and retain firefighters.

The pension system is known as the Maine Length of Service Award Program. About $300,000 of the annual funding would go to program administration, investment services and an annual audit, as required under the state law that established it. The rest of the funds would go directly to the accounts of participants in the program.

Volunteers would have to serve at least five years to become vested and would earn funds toward their pension based on the amount of time they attend training and organizational meetings and turn out for fires or other emergencies. The program also would be made available to volunteer emergency medical service providers and ambulance services.

Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, sponsored the bill that would have offered training credit at career and technical education programs. He told a legislative committee that having these programs offer education that meets industry standards “will help them hit the ground running as they begin to serve in volunteer departments across the state.”

“Maine’s volunteer fire departments are facing a generational shift as many members reach the age of retirement. This is leaving holes on many department rosters that chiefs are having a hard time filling with younger members,” Andrews said in testimony to the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

Printup, the Poland chief, said firefighters were fortunate Thursday when they were called to 342 Quarry Road for the mobile home fire. By the time crews arrived, the mobile home had been burning for quite a while and was “rubble with a metal roof on top,” he said.

Had the fire been in an occupied home or in a building that could still be saved, more firefighters would have been needed at the scene, Printup said.

Firefighters from New Gloucester, Poland and Gray spent about two hours extinguishing the fire and putting out hot spots. North Yarmouth and Pownal provided station coverage.

The state fire marshal was notified of the fire and an investigator was expected to visit the scene Thursday afternoon. New Gloucester Fire Chief Toby Martin said it is unlikely the cause of the fire will be determined because of the condition of the mobile home.

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