SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Tom Chisholm joined the junior fire department here at 8 years old. Now, two decades and a couple years later, he has been named the town’s fire chief.
It’s a step up from deputy chief, a role he has filled for the last few years.
He was nominated for the position by the volunteer members of the Southwest Harbor Fire Department at the end of June. The town’s select board officially appointed him the following week for a 3-year term. In this appointed position, the chief receives a stipend of less than $10,000 a year.
In his teen years Chisholm spent many weekends at the fire station with his dad, Sam Chisholm, who served as fire chief from 1995 to 2014.
“I was down here on Sundays doing stuff that was unpopular in high school,” he said.
When he turned 18, Chisholm officially joined the volunteer force and was promoted to captain a couple of years later, following fire academy training.
After high school, Chisholm attended Washington County Technical College for training as an electrician. In 2011, he was hired as an EMT in the Bar Harbor Fire Department. He works full time for the Bangor Fire Department as a firefighter/paramedic.
“There’s definitely exposure to a lot,” he said about the type and volume of calls the department sees in the bigger city.
Chisholm’s goal is to integrate methods from his experience in Bangor to the smaller department. At the same time, he values the variety of those serving the Southwest Harbor force.
“The best thing about a volunteer department is you have all walks of life,” said Chisholm about members who are large equipment operators, plumbers and handymen. “We’re asked to be semi-professional athletes at 2 a.m. when none of us are. So, that’s why we’re working smarter not harder.”
As chief, Chisholm wants to focus on goal-setting and delineation of responsibility within the department. Continuing to collaborate with neighboring departments on the island is also key to his new role.
“We’ve been doing a lot of progressive stuff,” he said. The four Mount Desert Island fire departments increasingly train together and make sure their equipment is compatible.
“If anything, the island is on top of fire protection stuff,” he said. Because of this collaboration, “we’ve always got the island protected.”
Recruitment is also important to retain a strong crew in the volunteer department. There are about 20 volunteers, which is about half of the number usually on the force, according to Chisholm. But there’s hope: three new people have joined in the last week.
“We’ve been doing fine,” he said. “For a basement fire, we turned out seven people on a Tuesday morning.”
But it’s still a challenge to consistently have enough volunteers available for every call.
The department had 15 calls in the month of June, he said, “which is a lot of calls for little Southwest Harbor.”
“It’s anything and everything. You could write a book.”