WESTBROOK — Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte hopes a pay raise will pull in more applicants to the call company to boost dwindling membership.

The City Council last week gave preliminary approval to a $1 an hour pay raise for call company members, bringing rates to $13-$14 an hour for applicants without training and $15-16 for those with training.

Turcotte said his goal with the pay increase is to keep the hiring competitive and retain the paid volunteers. Over the past few decades, call company membership has fallen from over 100, with a waiting list of those wanting to volunteer, to roughly 15 now, he said. He’d like to have at least 20 call members on the roster.

“A lot of the change is societal, people don’t have the time or a job that allows them to leave,” Turcotte said. “In the ’60s through ’80s, Sappi employees were the bulk of our call fire department.”

Sappi had employed 4,000 workers at its peak in the ’70s, but now has fewer than 190 employees

“This is a national, societal issue,” Turcotte said. “You are seeing municipalities go higher with pay in previous years. We do our best to recruit and retain, but the bottom line right now is with COVID, that’s a challenge with recruitment and we are in economic hardship, plus those who provided their time aren’t able now.”

Employers also aren’t as likely to let employees leave work to fight fires as they used to, he said, and employees can’t afford unpaid time off to respond to fires or to attend firefighting training.

Call fire companies mainly respond to structural fires, which are rarer than other types of fire calls, and that lessens the attraction of being a member, Turcotte said. Also, because staff firefighters now receive emergency medical training, there are a number of calls the volunteers aren’t eligible to respond to, he said.

“The days of having a more average Joe cover all of your calls are out the window,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said.

Prior to COVID-19 and response restrictions that often require EMS certification, the call company responded to roughly 500 calls or more each year, Turcotte said. Most of those calls required the call company to act in support roles as opposed to direct involvement.

“Having more people on the scene helps with our risk management, helps us keep the situation safe, and that is valuable,” he said.

Turcotte said the department offers training to call employees who want to further their careers.

“If a new member wants to get their EMT license or attend a specialty certification training, we would support that,” he said.

Even without advanced training, call company members play a vital role by providing critical support when it is most needed, Turcotte said. They provide fire support while not taking away from fire staff that may be needed on an EMS call and they reduce the reliance on mutual aid from other towns. The city’s mutual aid agreements have worked out “really well,” he said, but having the city’s own personnel on site benefits everyone.

Bryant agrees.

“Mutual aid is incredibly valuable, but if you are doing that you are taking away from the base of a neighboring community to assist you,” Bryant said. “In the event of an ice storm hitting all communities, we can’t expect Portland to send emergency personnel to us.” 

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