SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Emergency calls for the town’s fire department are up 51 percent over last year’s totals, officials said, and the end of the year is not here yet.
While the town department averaged about 100 calls a year for many years, last year there were only around 80 emergency responses on record. Fire Chief Tom Chisholm, who said he enjoys looking at trends and statistics, explained the higher number this year is mostly due to fall storms and requests to assist other emergency crews.
In October, when strong winds and rains combined for several natural disaster incidents, the department fielded 14 emergency calls in a 24-hour period, Chisholm said.
Also contributing to the increase were calls where firefighters were needed to assist the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Ambulance Service, an independent nonprofit.
“We’ve responded to a large number of EMS assists,” he added, noting the mutual aid agreements are in place between first response organizations around the island. “We’re kind of unique in some of those logistical challenges.”
Chisholm presented an overview of the department’s activity and budget at the selectmen’s meeting Dec. 11.
In addition to taking a complete inventory of the fire department’s equipment, Chisholm, in his first year as chief, has updated job descriptions for volunteers on the force as well as those interested in joining.
Three people have joined the department since summer and three more have expressed interest, he said.
The number of volunteers on the roster of the Southwest Harbor department stands at 24.
“They’re all quality people over quantity,” Chisholm told the Islander.
“A lot of emergencies fall on the same 10 to 12 members. We’ve had some very good luck with having some dedicated members … We’re always looking for people.”
Many of the newer recruits tend to come from the U.S. Coast Guard, choose to volunteer with the local fire department while serving at the station in Southwest Harbor. Chisholm said many of them train and commit to attending Firefighting Academy and carrying their certification to the next community they serve.
With new job descriptions clearly laid out for the department, Chisholm is able to put people in a role that helps them support the force.
“There’s tons of little things people can do to help,” he said. “The old job descriptions said you had to have all kinds of certifications.”
The department has also been able to save by ordering only the equipment that will actually be used by a new member. A full ensemble of turnout gear for interior firefighting, Chisholm said, can cost up to $2,750.
“We have a fairly small equipment budget each year,” he added. “It takes about eight weeks to get that all ordered. It’s not just on the shelf.”
A beginning volunteer can be outfitted for closer to $500 with basic protection gear.
“Some of the job descriptions will dictate the type of equipment that person will need to do that job,” he said.
Those job descriptions are available for public viewing at the firehouse. They are also handed out with the application when someone expresses interest in becoming a volunteer.
New volunteers attend bi-monthly trainings, receive a pager, respond to calls and put in some time to learn the ropes before they are ready for action.
“If they stick with that for six months, we’ll get them uniform stuff,” said Chisholm, referring to department swag, like a sweatshirt or hat.
“If they are still around at that point, we get them into using equipment and to the fire academy … Sometime after they’ve graduated from the fire academy, we get them some new equipment.”
Chisholm also told selectmen he intends to bring the junior firefighting program back online. That program ended this spring after an inter-departmental issue that was not made public. Chisholm began his trajectory to chief by way of joining the junior program in his youth.
In addition to leading the Southwest Harbor department, Chisholm works full-time as a firefighter for the City of Bangor. He logs eight days a month in the city and an eight-to-10-hour day each week with the Southwest Harbor department.
“I do notice my phone rings all the time,” said Chisholm in his new role as chief. “I keep up on my skills around here just as much as I do up there.”