Biddeford Fire Department recruits practice their driving skills behind the Saco Fire Station on a recent day. Ten new recruits are undergoing an eight week training session, but the department is still down several personnel. Chiefs in departments around the county say there is a need for more trained people. Tammy Wells photo

There may be a glimmer of light at the far end of the tunnel for some York County fire and rescue departments that have been scrambling to find enough qualified personnel to fill their ranks. Those hiring — and some in the area, like Biddeford and Kennebunk, are in the process of doing so — say they are finding recruits. Despite some recent hiring success, however, demand remains high, whether for full-time career or per-diem personnel — those who choose to fill shifts by the day and receive pay, but no benefits.

A shortage of trained fire and EMS personnel means those who are working may be ordered to work overtime.

A free EMT training course at York County Community College drew an initial 64 applicants. There are 16 people in the 15-week class. Here, students William Jepson and Corey Boucher, along with instructor Kevin Bachi, and student Katie Abbott practice on a “patient.” Caitlin Grant Photo/York County Community College

In Biddeford, Fire Chief Scott Gagne said fire and rescue personnel are struggling, despite recently hiring 10 new recruits.

“Everyone is stressed,” said Gagne, who said at times he has mandated as many as four to five people a day to work overtime. “Everyone is working hard to stay positive and keep this going.”

The new Biddeford recruits are in an eight-week “rookie school” right now, training 40 hours a week. Some already have their basic EMT certification, some have their advanced EMT certificate, and some are attending paramedic school. They have already completed Firefighter 1 and 2 courses and are learning more. Gagne said all the rookies will be sent to paramedic school. It will take time for them to be fully on board.

Even with the recent hires, there are many more empty shifts to fill, and four new positions authorized by the Biddeford City Council open up in January, said Gagne. Some workers are out on long-term medical leave, and other positions are vacant. A couple of people chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine and that, too, has left a gap.

Call volumes, at 5,500 last year, are projected to be 5,700 this year, said Gagne.

In Arundel, the Board of Selectmen increased the pay scale for per-diem paramedics, advanced EMTs and basic EMTs about three weeks ago. Arundel Fire Chief Jerry Beaulieu, who works full-time for Saco Fire Department, says he has been able to hire a couple of paramedics and EMTs per diem with the new pay structure, but still, there is plenty of work available and filling the roster can be challenging.

Arundel Fire and Rescue has one full-time firefighter and relies on per diem personnel. A few years ago, the department had about 20 paramedics on the per-diem roster, but lately, there have been about eight, said Beaulieu. The department has been relying more heavily on emergency medical technicians at the advanced level and have also hired per-diem basic EMTs, the latter scheduled to work with those who have been on the job five or more years, the chief said.

Fire departments for years have tended to hire personnel at the paramedic level, already trained, but that option isn’t as available as it used to be.

“We’d like to have a paramedic on 24 hours and currently, we’re not meeting that,” said Beaulieu. “There’s just not enough people going around; it’s awful.”

York County Fire Administrator Roger Hooper talked about the need for trained fire and EMS personnel in a recent interview. York County government is examining the possibilities of locating a training center in the county. Tammy Wells photo

He noted a paramedic on duty in Arundel on a recent day works full-time at Westbrook Fire Department and also works per diem in Kennebunkport.

In Kennebunk, Fire Chief Jeff Rowe, whose department was recently awarded a three-year federal grant for eight full-time positions, said he has had 42 applications for the jobs.

“I’m very pleased and surprised,” said Rowe. He said he expects he will have the eight new hires in place by the first of the year. Still, three per-diem personnel will remain part of the Kennebunk roster, built into the schedule daily. Currently, Rowe relies on 17 or 18 per-diem personnel who work full-time elsewhere.

The Sanford Fire Department recently hired eight firefighters to fill vacancies and new positions.

York County Fire Administrator Roger Hooper, who was fire chief at Goodwins Mills Fire Department for several years after 33 years in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve, said whether they are full-timers working per diem elsewhere, or part-time chiefs in the small towns working full-time for another department, “we’re recycling the same people; we need to develop the workforce.”

Hooper, York County government’s first-ever fire administrator, said while there are training programs in locations around the state, including York County, it is piecemeal. “We don’t have the capacity to train the number of people we need,”  said Hooper. “There is a huge need.”

Kennebunk Fire Chief Jeff Rowe, whose department was recently awarded a three-year federal grant for eight full-time positions, said he has had 42 applications for the jobs. Dan King photo

Even though some departments have had the good fortune to fill full-time slots, the need for more trained people increases as Baby Boomer fire and EMS workers reach retirement, and others change careers — or move on to a different department for additional pay or more robust benefits.

“Twenty years ago, the full-time departments were hiring out of the volunteer departments. Today, they don’t have any,” said Hooper. He pointed out that the shortage of personnel existed pre-COVID.

The refusal of some personnel in Maine to become vaccinated plays a role, but it appears to be a small one. On Oct. 20, the Maine Department of Public Safety announced that 96.9 percent of the state’s emergency medical service licensees had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Hooper said recruiting must change and modernize to spark young people’s interest.

“And we need a way to train people to get into the field,” he said.

Hooper has recently been talking with York County Community College Economic and Workforce Development Director Caitlin Grant about the need for trained personnel.

Grant said a free, 15-week training class at the college for emergency medical technicians at the basic level drew 64 initial applicants for 18 slots — a demonstration there is interest. Funding for the program, which began a couple of weeks ago, was provided by Maine Quality Centers, and 16 people are enrolled.

“We have the ability to be responsive,” said Grant of the community college. She said when she took over the workforce development role at the college earlier this year, after eight years with the community college system and a stint in an enrollment role, she surveyed York County communities and those in bordering New Hampshire towns. Grant said she learned the need for training was real. Grant said York County Community College plans to host an advanced EMT course in the new year.

She said there have been some initial conversations with Hooper and York County Manager Greg Zinser about a more extensive collaboration.

Hooper and others have a vision of a new center in Alfred, on county-owned land adjacent to York County Jail, for fire, EMS and law enforcement training. York County commissioners have authorized a committee made up of fire, EMS and law enforcement chiefs, the community college system, the emergency management agency, Maine Centers for Disease Control and others to plan and develop a training and readiness center. The facility would be built primarily with American Rescue Plan funding.

The proposal has support. Several local fire and police chiefs have written letters to the county government, outlining the need, as has the director of the Maine Fire Service Institute.

“I am writing in support of this endeavor, as it aligns with a statewide effort to improve the emergency services ability to train new and current first responders with an end goal of attracting more members to a dwindling human resource,” wrote James Graves, director for the fire service institute.

Meanwhile, the departments continue to answer the calls.

“It’s hard” when personnel is stretched thin, said Gagne from his office at Biddeford Fire Department. “They’re doing a good job.”

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