The Kennebunk Select Board gave the OK to Fire Chief Jeff Rowe to apply for a federal grant that would allow him to hire eight people to fill two positions per shift. The town relies on per diem workers, and there are fewer available these days, he said. Tammy Wells Photo

KENNEBUNK – Fire Chief Jeff Rowe told members of the Kennebunk Select Board that it is getting harder and harder to fill per diem positions at the fire and EMS agency, particularly at the paramedic level.

Those who work per diem are often employed full-time at other departments and in Kennebunk on their days off, or are retired from full-time work. Per diem workers fill shifts in various fire and EMS agencies in York County and across Maine. Besides Kennebunk, in the immediate area, Arundel, Kennebunkport and Wells all operate with the use of per diem personnel. They are paid an hourly wage but receive no benefits.

“The sky isn’t falling,” Rowe told the Select Board on Dec, 10. But the fire chief said there are increasing numbers of vacancies.

That is why Rowe asked for – and received – permission to apply for a federal grant that could convert a couple of positions that are now dubbed as per diem into regular full-time jobs. Rowe is looking to convert two positions from per diem to full-time, which would mean hiring eight people, because it takes four people to fill one position, he said.

“Staffing is a big issue with fire departments across the country,” Rowe told the Select Board. “We get by here in Kennebunk, with mutual aid from surrounding neighbors who do a great job. With EMS, we rely on per diem day-to-day to staff one ambulance and half of (the second). It is getting more and more difficult to staff per diems, particularly at the paramedic level….the number of vacant shifts is increasing.”

Life changes means per diems work fewer hours, or there are fewer people working per diem, for a variety of reasons.


“Some are young and start a family, others move to a department that is busier or slower,” said Rowe. “Maybe they’re tired of working two jobs, or their spouse, or they, got a promotion and the money not a factor any more.”

Kennebunk Fire Rescue responds to about 3,000 calls for service annually; Rowe said about 2,300 of them are EMS calls.

“What happens if there’s a big storm and the per diems can’t get in” asked Select Board member William Ward.

Rowe explained that can happen because during a storm, when those who work per diem for Kennebunk are held over at their full-time jobs. He said members of the Kennebunk call company come in .

“They’re still a vital link for us,” he said. “There will always be a call company as long as I am here.”

Rowe will apply for a SAFER grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. SAFER stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response.


If Kennebunk is successful in receiving a SAFER grant, the town’s share would be about 25 percent of the cost, $24,500, for each eight positions, or $196,000, for each of the first two years. The town is already budgeting about the same amount for per diem workers, in effect, a wash, financially, he told the board. In the third year, the town picks up 65 percent, or $63,700 for each of the eight workers, at $509,000. Subtracting the $196,000 budgeted for per diem workers, which wouldn’t be needed, reduces the increased amount to taxpayers to $313,000, Rowe said. In the fourth year, the town would pick up the full amount. Rowe noted the figures are estimates.

He said he believes the department has a good chance at a grant because the number of personnel available is below national standards. He said other Maine departments, like Westbrook and Portland, have been successful in prior years.

In 2018, the department converted one per diem position to full-time,which meant hiring four people. If the SAFER grant doesn’t come through, Rowe said he’ll propose another be converted.

He said the crux of the matter is that the department is short staffed, on all fronts.

And he knows the department he heads isn’t the only one in the same position.

“This is any community,” he said.

The grant will open for applications sometime in January, and winners will be announced 30 days after the application deadline.

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