Like all manner of civic institutions staffed primarily by volunteers, many of Maine’s small town fire departments are finding it harder and harder to recruit members. Departments on Mount Desert Island are not immune to this trend.
One major problem is attracting younger people. A local fire chief reported that the average age of volunteer firefighters is now over 50. Studies have shown a number of reasons for lower enrollment rates, including steadily increasing training requirements and the challenge of dropping everything at places of employment to respond to calls. Also, it is hard to maintain interest in being a firefighter when it seems that the vast majority of calls are false alarms and traffic accidents in which no one is injured.
Still, the potential for major calamity remains. The tools and techniques needed to fight fires in modern structures with high-tech systems and highly-inflammable artificial materials far exceed the old “surround and drown” strategies of the past. Meth labs, such as those discovered in Bar Harbor recently, the potential for biohazards, and other mass casualty calamities add to the need for increased professional training. And unfair criticism and second-guessing of firefighters certainly don’t help.
Studying current State rules and regulations to assess their potential negative impact on recruitment and retention would be a good first step. Bills currently before the Maine Legislature seek to increase the pay of volunteers and provide those of longer service with a small pension. But most volunteers note that their participation is not about money but rather an innate desire to help protect their community. More money might help, but not to the degree proponents believe.
For now, ensuring sufficient staffing by more reliance on mutual-aid agreements may provide some relief. But what is needed is a support system that inspires and encourages young people to become actively involved in their communities. Without that flow of young energy, our local institutions, so dependant on volunteers, slowly will fade away.