Gorham and Scarborough share a fire station at 16 Saco St. in Scarborough, where Scarborough houses two firetrucks and Gorham has one. Krysteana Scribner / The Forecaster

SCARBOROUGH ⁠— Mutual aid from other communities is crucial when responding to fires or emergencies, but the Scarborough fire chief and town manager say the town of Gorham isn’t putting enough resources into staffing, leaving Scarborough to pick up the slack.

Gorham and Scarborough share a fire station at 16 Saco St. in Scarborough, where Scarborough houses two fire trucks and Gorham has one. Despite sharing resources, Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow said Gorham hasn’t contributed enough to cover the cost of their 30-year mutual aid agreement.

According to Thurlow, when a call for mutual aid goes out, Gorham pays the bill if Scarborough firefighters respond, and Scarborough will do the same for Gorham or any other community.

“If we respond to a different community, we provide a service and there is revenue that comes with that, so that takes a little bit of the sting away,” he said. “But at the same time, we can’t serve our own town’s needs as busy as we’re all getting if we’re somewhere else.”

Scarborough has historically staffed more part timers as the number of call firefighters has decreased.

According to Scarborough Fire Department office administrator Julie Sanford, the town has 28 full time staff members and over 100 per diem employees working for the department. Gorham has five full time first responders and one per diem staff member.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Gorham has 17,651 residents over 51.29 miles. Scarborough has 20,352 residents over 70.63 miles.

“Scarborough is putting more resources into per diem staffing than Gorham, and it’s something every year I have a conversation about with their chief, who is a proponent to make that an equal share, but hasn’t been able to address the issue,” Thurlow said.

A March 2019 analysis of Scarborough fire department staffing needs shows that Scarborough is responding to close to 1,000 calls per year. According to most recent data from 2018, the town responded to 315 calls for Gorham, and an additional 85 mutual aid calls were addressed in other communities such as Old Orchard Beach and Saco.

The report states that a growing population in both towns makes it more difficult to respond at a faster rate, especially since most jobs aren’t as flexible with allowing employees who are per diem firefighters to leave work with little notice.

According to 2019-2020 budget documents for Gorham, the fire department has struggled with turnaround time for inspections and permits, a result of rapid growth seen in zoning changes implemented by town council over the years.

“Everybody is struggling to keep enough call members, or people not scheduled to be at the station but will leave their business or home to help in necessary situations,” Thurlow said. “Nationwide, there is a huge shortage of call members.”

Gorham Fire Chief Robert S. Lefebvre said he doesn’t believe his department is experiencing more difficulty than any others in the state in the struggle to find staff.

He said that’s likely due to the extensive 300-400 hours of training needed to become a firefighter, and per diem members are difficult to find because finding a full time job that allows employees leave to respond to emergencies is a difficult task in today’s day and age.

Lefebvre said Gorham is doing all it can to address the issue of staffing, and said the two departments share expenses of heat, equipment and phone bills, in addition to covering the cost of mutual aid when other towns respond for them.

From 2018 to the current 2019-2020 fiscal year budget, Gorham has spent $5,172,343 on their fire services. Scarborough has spent $15,383,242 in the same period of time.

However, for 2019-2020, the fire services budget makes up 9.4% of Scarborough’s $56 million budget, while the fire service budget makes up for 11.5% of Gorham’s $15,476,882 budget.

Thurlow said regardless of the struggle, communities have to depend on their neighbors and the mutual aid program has worked for a long time. It makes a good, strong system that allows for stations to avoid duplication of services that aren’t necessary, he said.

“It’s always good to work well together,” he said. “But there are times historically that staffing and budget challenges have come up. We try to work on ways to overcome that and support necessary changes.”

Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said mutual aid calls are the backbone of fire service, but recognized that he was aware of Scarborough’s frustrations with Gorham’s struggle to keep up.

In any relationship, he explained, you need each party to reciprocate, but there is currently a bit of an imbalance in how they chose to fund per-diem and full-time staff that Gorham is aware of and working to fix.

“We want to be careful and respect the conversation equally but we want them to step up and provide the sort of staff to handle their call volume and to advance some of those enhancements in staff,” Hall said.

Comments are not available on this story.