MOUNT DESERT — The town is nearly doubling the rate of pay for on-call firefighters who volunteer to work shifts at the fire station in Northeast Harbor as the Fire Department moves to around-the clock staffing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus threat.
Both the 24/7 coverage and the higher pay for the volunteers who help provide it went into effect Monday on what is to be a temporary basis, until the pandemic threat has passed.
The hourly pay for those on-call firefighters has gone from $13.80 to $26.61, which is what a starting full-time firefighter would make.
“We thought it was appropriate to pay our on-call people who are coming in to work a shift the same as a new full-time firefighter,” Fire Chief Mike Bender said.
The increase was needed, he said, “to make working shifts at the fire station and leaving family for extended times worth their while.”
The pay increase was scheduled to take effect July 1, the start of the new budget year, pending the approval of voters at town meeting in May. But Bender asked the Board of Selectmen to make the pay increase effective immediately to help ensure adequate coverage in the event of a local coronavirus outbreak. The board approved his request at a special meeting last Thursday.
The town has only four full-time, salaried firefighters, including the chief. Normally, they cover the Northeast Harbor fire station between 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
With this week’s change to around-the-clock staffing, Bender said on-call firefighters will be needed to help fill all the shifts. He said there were two reasons for the move to 24/7 staffing.
“First, we wanted to protect the health and safety of our on-call firefighters, and we felt the best way to do that was to have them in the station in a lockdown atmosphere, where hopefully we can keep it infection free,” he said.
“The other reason is that, with the pandemic coming on, we didn’t know how busy we were going to be. For example, although the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service has staffing, their resources are limited, so they rely on us to assist them on calls. To be sure would have adequate staffing to help them if they should need it, we felt we needed to have some people at the station who could respond at any time.”
Bender told Town Manager Durlin Lunt in a March 18 memo, “Depending on how long this pandemic lasts, this increase in pay and additional hours worked will most likely exceed the current Fire Department budget.”
This year’s budget for on-call firefighter pay is $28,000.
Lunt said Tuesday there should be enough money in the overall public safety budget to cover whatever extra amount is needed to pay on-call firefighters.
Once the threat of a virus outbreak has passed, Bender said the Fire Department will revert to its normal, daytime-only staffing schedule. The pay for on-call firefighters will revert to $13.80 an hour, at least until July 1.