BAR HARBOR — Todd Hardy and Zach Soares both have families and full-time jobs here.
Soares works at the College of the Atlantic, and Hardy runs the construction and design company Eden Builders.
At the sound of a high-pitched beep, Hardy and Soares draw radios from their hips and switch to firefighter mode, a job they do on a volunteer basis for the Bar Harbor Fire Department.
“I could be sitting in front of a computer trying to fit parts of a design together and my pager could go off,” Hardy said. “I’ve had situations where I was with a client and I say ‘You know what? I’ve got to go.’”
While Hardy runs his own business, Soares said his supervisors at COA, as well as his family, have been flexible during his three-year tenure as a volunteer.
“When I first told my boss, I was worried that they would say ‘no,’” Soares said. “I said that if it was their house, they would want me to be there, and they said ‘I get it.’”
“There’s more strain familywise for me,” Soares added. “It’s just not what I’m used to, like we’ll start a movie, and then I’ll have to go.”
Hardy, a volunteer firefighter for 17 years, said it’s rewarding to be able to help people in the community and see how the community has rallied during adverse times.
“My kids were younger and the Portside Grill fire happened,” Hardy said. “I heard the call and knew this was a real fire right away. I was watching my kids while my wife was at work down the street. I got out at the end of the street, put on my gear and started running with my kids down the street. Someone I knew took my kids [to my wife], and the last thing they saw was me disappearing into the smoke.”
Soares said that there are different capacities that volunteers work in at the department. If someone was apprehensive about going into a fire, they could perform a less daunting but important task like directing traffic. BHFD Chief Matt Bartlett said that the department responds to around 1,700 calls a year, which strains the 10 salaried firefighters and 12 volunteers.
“We have a need for truck operators because it frees up someone else at a fire,” Bartlett said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
BHFD, like other departments nationwide, is facing a shortage of volunteer firefighters. Bartlett said the department had 52 volunteers in 1977. That number shrank to 20 in 2010 and now sits at 12. Ten of the volunteers live in Bar Harbor, and the other two split time between Bar Harbor and their hometown departments.
Bartlett said smaller departments in Maine are beginning to add full-time staff to cover a lack of volunteers. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) said in their 2017 fact sheet that there has been a slow rise in the number of volunteer firefighters since 2011. But that growth does not satisfy the increase in the number of calls to fire departments, which has tripled in the last 30 years.
It’s less costly to train and equip volunteers than to hire salaried firefighters at an average pay rate, the group said. Retention of the volunteers also has been a focus. According to National Fire Protection Association statistics, 70 percent of the 1.1 million firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
“The lack of volunteers has been a problem for the last 10 years,” Hardy said. “If we get one or two more people in the door, that’s a huge difference for us.”
Bar Harbor volunteers receive an hourly wage of $10 for time they are at a call. While Soares said the hourly pay helps a bit during the holiday season, it’s not the reason he volunteered.
“There are nonmonetary benefits from the job,” Soares said. “This is a great opportunity to run this machine in this town that I live in because I love it.”
Soares said he was apprehensive about volunteering when he first started, but he soon settled into the position. He began training for a more advanced role in the department almost a year after he started.
Hardy and Soares both said they don’t respond to every fire call. Soares, who is not trained as an EMT, learned after a few months on the job to read the calls to determine what jobs require his presence.
“When I first got my pager, I was shocked at the number of calls,” Soares said. “But I was also shocked about all the calls I didn’t have to go to.”
Hardy said volunteers may go a month without being on call. In the winter, firefighters have training sessions every two weeks, but that is the only reliable schedule for volunteers.
“There are large time commitments where you could be gone all day on a large fire,” Hardy said. “You might get two or three calls in a week, maybe like two hours a week.”
Soares said that if he needs to attend a short call, he will make up time by working late or skipping lunch. He said he takes personal days if a call requires more time, but his supervisors usually are very understanding of longer calls.
Hardy said when he learned that he could become a volunteer firefighter, he made up his mind immediately. He urged anyone who is grappling with the decision to speak to him or Soares about joining up.
“I feel very rewarded by the whole experience,” Hardy said. “I think it’s awesome, and I don’t want to be greedy with it all.”
“It’s just a good group of guys,” Hardy added. (There are no women in the Bar Harbor department at the moment, but other island departments have several female members.) “We’re all like-minded in a lot of ways. We’re all good friends.”