Kennebunk Fire Chief Jeff Rowe in the bay of the fire rescue department at Central Station. The department has received a federal grant that fully funds the hiring of eight additional firefighters/EMS personnel for the next three years. Tammy Wells photo

KENNEBUNK – With the volume of calls for service close to 2,800 annually, 80 percent of them for emergency medical services, Kennebunk Fire Rescue needs more people to join their ranks, said Fire Chief Jeff Rowe.

Now, thanks to a $2.6 million grant awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the department is in a position to hire eight more. The award covers 100 percent of costs for the firefighter/EMS personnel for a full three years – from salary to benefits, uniforms, everything, said Rowe. The town would pick up costs in year four, and Rowe told the select board on Sept. 14 he had thoughts on how lessen that impact, which he planned to roll out at budget discussions.

Eight additional full-time staff will allow the department to staff the four shifts with seven people per shift, rather than the five positions the shifts call for now.

“We’re excited about this,” said Rowe, “It’s a great opportunity.”

The Kennebunk Select Board formally accepted the grant, and Rowe began advertising the positions. Under the terms of the SAFER grant (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response), the positions must be filled within 180 days.

Currently, each shift is comprised of a captain and a firefighter/paramedic employed full time by the department, said Rowe, along with three per-diem personnel, who are built into the schedule and work for a wage, but without benefits. Typically, per-diem paramedics and EMTS work a full-time job for another agency and work per diem for departments like Kennebunk, and perhaps for several others, on their days off. Some retirees also choose to work per diem. Under the staffing plan, three per diems per shift would remain built into the roster.

Rowe told the select board that several in-house candidates are qualified for the new positions.

“We’d love them to come work for us,” Rowe said.

As for the availability of per diems, he acknowledged that at times, it can be an issue, and on a recent day, the shift was operating with three people, instead of the usual five, because two per diem people were unavailable. Many departments in southern Maine rely on per-diem personnel to fill vacant shifts.

“It is a cyclical thing, we may be at the bottom of the valley,” said Rowe. ” If we can stay in the middle, it’s a good area to shoot for.”

He told the board that 11 years ago, prior to his arrival as chief, a SAFER grant allowed Kennebunk to hire two full-time personnel.

In Kennebunk, the base pay is $21.05 per hour, with $3 more for a paramedic, $2 more for an advanced EMT and $1 more per hour for those with a basic EMT license, according to the job description, plus benefits. Those with an associate or bachelor’s degree earn a slightly higher hourly rate. The schedule consists of a 24-hour shift, followed by two days off, a 24-hour shift, and four days off.

Rowe recalled at the beginning of his long career in the fire and EMS service, he contemplated taking the New York City Fire Department entrance test, but in the end, decided against the measure. He worked for more than three decades at the Sanford department, including serving as chief, before being hired as chief in Kennebunk in 2014.

He said both the board and the community is supportive of the department’s work.

“Here, people drop by food, treats … you know, the customers,” he said.

In addition to the $2.6 million for personnel, Kennebunk Fire Rescue was awarded a $20,000 Assistance to Firefighters FEMA grant to replace aging extrication equipment.

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