MOUNT DESERT — The chiefs of Mount Desert Island’s four fire departments want to meet soon with the four town managers to talk about ways to ensure adequate fire protection across the island in the years to come, including the possibility of a single, island-wide fire department.
That idea has been kicked around for a number of years, but there have been no serious proposals. But now, with a continuing decline in the number of volunteer firefighters, consolidation is seen as a possible long-term solution.
Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender told the Board of Selectmen on Monday that the chiefs want to meet with the town managers to discuss “where we are and what we need to do for the future … and most importantly, to see if there is any appetite to continue the discussion about moving forward with any type of consolidation, regionalization, sharing or whatever you care to call it.”
Bender’s discussion with the selectmen was prompted by a report he recently prepared for the town manager and selectmen.
It is a sobering analysis of his department’s ability to continue providing an adequate level of protection for the town’s residents and property owners. He warned in the 7-page report that a continuing decline in the number of on-call firefighters could mean that by 2025 “the department’s effectiveness (in providing) fire and life protection to the town on a consistent basis can be questioned.”
So far this year, he said, the fire department has been unable to respond to five calls because of a lack of available personnel. Fortunately, all five calls turned out to be false alarms.
Nevertheless, Bender said, these “scratched calls” are usually considered “red flags that a department may be approaching a point where its ability to fulfill its mission is in doubt.”
The Mount Desert Fire Department currently has four full-time firefighters including the chief. The rest are “on call” volunteers who are paid $13.80 an hour for responding to calls, taking part in training sessions and doing work at one of the three fire stations — in Northeast Harbor, Seal Harbor and Somesville.
In 2001, when the town’s four independent volunteer fire departments merged into a municipal department and the position of full-time, paid fire chief was created, there was a total of 51 unpaid volunteers. Now, even though volunteers are paid for their time, there are only 16 of them. Bender cites several reasons for the decline.
“The lack of affordable housing, population aging and the ever-increasing shift to a more seasonal-only community all have impacted our ability to attract new members,” he said in his report.
Other factors, which he said present challenges to fire departments across the country, include greater training and certification requirements and people having less time to volunteer.
Bender said that over the past five years, six new on-call firefighters have joined the department and 13 have resigned or retired.
He acknowledged that mutual aid agreements, under which the fire departments in neighboring towns assist each other in responding to calls, has helped fill gaps in coverage.
“Thankfully, we have Bar Harbor covering for us on calls that we can’t get anybody to go to,” Bender told the selectmen.
But he indicated that is not a viable long-term solution and noted that the other towns on the island have their own staffing challenges.
“We’re not alone,” he said. “It’s a statewide crisis; it’s a concern everywhere. What are we going to do when we run out of volunteer firefighters and EMTs?”
Selectman Martha Dudman said of Bender’s analysis of the town’s current and future fire protection capabilities, “I found it very thorough. I found it chilling. You paint a very scary picture of how difficult it is to recruit and retain fire fighters.”
Higher on-call pay
Bender said that, as part of the effort to attract and keep personnel, his budget request for next fiscal year will include an increase in pay for on-call firefighters who can fill daytime shifts.
“The proposed raise will be equal to the beginning pay for a full-time firefighter,” he said. “There also will be a request to fund … a stipend for those firefighters who are willing to be on call outside normal full-time staffing hours.”
He cautioned that he sees these pay incentives as only “stop gap measures until a more permanent resolution can be implemented.”
“The current staffing model provides for an effective response during daytime hours, seven days a week,” Bender said. “However, the department is seeing a declining level of response to calls during off-duty hours.
“It is critical to understand that diminishing availability and participation from on-call firefighters will almost certainly have to be met with additional career resources to address current shortfalls in coverage.”
By additional “career resources,” he means full-time firefighters.
Hiring enough of them to provide adequate around-the-clock coverage would mean additional spending, and not just for salaries and benefits.
“Expanding the existing fire station(s) or constructing a new one to provide overnight quarters will most likely be necessary,” Bender said. “You’re talking two to three years go get that done. So, if you want to look at where we need to be in three to four years, the wheels need to start turning.”
Ultimately, Bender said, “It will be up to the taxpayers and elected officials of Mount Desert to decide the amount of fire protection the town is willing to support.”
When it comes to protecting property, the stakes are higher in Mount Desert than in towns many times its size. Its year-round population is only about 2,100, but with multi-million-dollar estates owned by seasonal residents, the total assessed value of the town’s privately owned property is $2.17 billion. That is much more than any other municipality in Hancock County. So, while Mount Desert has an exceptionally healthy tax base, it also has an unusually heavy responsibility for protecting property.
Difficult, not impossible
Bender said consolidation or “regionalization” of the island’s four fire departments might never happen and, if it does, it would not come about easily or quickly.
Therefore, he said in his written report, “Regionalization should not be viewed as a short-term solution to staffing woes, but rather as a way for our local fire departments to combine and share resources while providing the necessary level of fire protection to the entire island for the foreseeable future.”
As for when consolidation might occur, Bender told the selectmen, “I’m thinking 10 or 12 years down the road. It would be a monumental task, like the [high school] consolidation.
“You would have four towns trying to figure out how to finance this, how you’re going to set it up, who is going to be where, where the stations are going to be, how much staffing to have at each station.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he said of the prospect of merging of the island’s fire departments, “but I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Even if all the obstacles can be overcome, Bender acknowledged in his written report that consolidation of the island’s fire departments could have negative consequences, at least initially.
“In 2001, when the four Mount Desert fire departments combined, many volunteer fire fighters resigned, feeling that the sense of ‘helping your community’ was lost in the consolidation,” he said. “Loss of local control is another factor that can have a negative impact.”