MOUNT DESERT — To alleviate the chronic shortage of Fire Department volunteers, Chief Mike Bender wants to hire two new full-time firefighters and to start paying those who currently volunteer an hourly wage for their work and training time.
They are now paid a stipend of $35 for each training session and fire station work session. They are not paid for responding to fires or other types of calls.
Bender and Lt. Amilie Blackman are the only full-time, salaried members of the department.
Bender told the Board of Selectmen Monday night that two more are needed.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve started seeing red flags or indicators that we’re running dangerously shorthanded,” he said. “This past year, we had three to five calls where nobody showed up.
“The other thing that bothers me is that we’re starting to age out. We’ve been able to attract a few young people. But for every three or four we get in, we lose probably two or three after a year or so.”
Bender wants to reclassify the department’s volunteers as “on-call” firefighters.
“The plan is to have a starting pay rate of $8 an hour, with an increase of 35 cents per hour for every year of continuous service, retroactive to 2001,” he said in a memo to Town Manager Durlin Lunt. He said firefighters who respond to fire or other service calls would be paid for a minimum of two hours.
The starting salary for the two new full-time firefighters Bender wants to hire would be $17 an hour. Their salaries and health insurance would cost the town $91,314.
The new pay plan for on-call firefighters would cost about $20,000 more than the $16,000 he budgeted for firefighter stipends for the current fiscal year.
Overall, the $515,490 Fire Department budget Bender is requesting for next fiscal year would be $157,079 more than this year’s budget, an increase of 26.4 percent.
Selectmen have not yet made any decisions about the budget requests of any of the town’s department heads. The budget they adopt, sometime in March, will go to voters for approval at town meeting in early May.
Selectman Dennis Shubert said it has been clear for several years that the Fire Department needs more personnel. But he doesn’t favor hiring two additional full-time firefighters at this time.
“It just seems that we don’t have enough activity to carry the expense,” he said. “At the same time, we do have to protect the community.”
Shubert suggested that the Fire Department should try Bender’s proposal for paid, on-call firefighters for a couple of years to see if it increases recruitment and retention.
“Obviously, it’s going to be your call,” Bender told the selectmen in response. “But what worries me is being shorthanded.
“I don’t want to be in the position of having to stand up here some evening and explain to you or to someone in the audience why they lost their home or even more, when I knew we were shorthanded and didn’t propose doing something about it.”
Town officials have recognized the shortage of firefighters as a serious problem for several years now.
In December 2009, Shubert, who was then chairman of the public protection committee, told the Board of Selectmen, “There is a strong indication … that protection from structure fire and loss of life in this community is not adequate. The problem is basically a lack of volunteers.”
In January 2010, Bender reported that the fire department had failed to meet national standards for responding to fires and other incidents in seven of the previous eight years.
Last January, Selectman Tom Richardson said the hiring of more full-time firefighters was “inevitable.” Selectman John Macauley agreed, saying, “I think the writing has been on the wall for so long that it’s faded.”
On Monday night, Macauley said it is definitely time to start spending more on fire protection, “in light of the fact that we have over $2 billion of assessed property value [in Mount Desert] and we’ve been sort of skating by without a full-time department.”
Richardson said of the plan to increase the number of full-time firefighters and to pay others an hourly wage, “I don’t question that we need it. I don’t think it’s any too soon.”
But he said he wasn’t sure whether the town should create two new full-time positions or start with just one more.
Bender said he is asking for two so that the main fire station in Northeast Harbor could be staffed by two people, at least during the day.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do with one person,” he said. “With two, at least you can get the truck to the scene and get the water supply established. It’s also a safety factor; it’s just safer to have two.”
Under his plan, two firefighters would be at the station every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Asked why that level of coverage can’t be provided at night, as well, Bender said it would require hiring even more full-time firefighters.
“I can’t see this town going to a full-time department for a while, at least,” he said. “We’re still going to be relying on on-call staff for a number of years.”
Besides, he said, there are no sleeping quarters at the fire station, so around-the-clock staffing isn’t feasible.
Bender said the Fire Department currently has 20 active volunteers. He would like to have closer to 30 because not everyone is available to respond to every call. People who have jobs can’t always just drop what they are doing to go to a fire, and many of them work out of town.
Nevertheless, Bender hopes that paying firefighters an hourly rate will encourage more of them to turn out for more calls.
“We also hope this will help attract new personnel, particularly younger men and women,” he said. “Everyone is busier these days, and it is becoming harder and harder to expect people to donate their time for fire meetings, trainings, equipment checks and calls.”
He said that, with the new pay plan, firefighters will have an opportunity to work part-time for the department.
“This could be as simple as driving a truck to an out-of-town location for service or repairs or filling in on shifts for full-time staff,” he said. “This would produce a more consistent staffing level while offering occasional work opportunities to our on-call staff.”
Attracting and keeping enough volunteer firefighters is a constant struggle for all four fire departments on Mount Desert Island. It helps greatly that they have a mutual aid agreement that commits each of the fire departments to provide personnel and equipment, when requested, to help fight fires or respond to other emergencies anywhere on the island.