Thursday, October 22, 2015

Volunteer/Call Firefighters in Maine......

Maine’s small-town fire departments struggle to find volunteers, money   Bangor Daily News, 10/20/2015.

Below is my reply to the article linked above:

Bangor Daily News

                Once or twice a year an article will appear in a Maine newspaper talking about the shortage of volunteer firefighters in Maine. Most recently an article was in the October 20th Bangor Daily News.  None of these articles ever seem to identify why this is occurring. They all just seem to reiterate the same problem over and over. Shortage of volunteers,  more funding is needed, too much training is required, etc., etc.  Then it becomes old news and forgotten, until someone write another article.
                I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for over 30 years. I am currently the Fire Chief of a combination fire department in York County. As a Fire Chief, I struggle with recruiting and retaining firefighters and emergency medical technicians.  The cause of this problem is more complicated that one might think. It’s also a Nation-wide problem. There are several factors present.  Most are demographic and societal rather than financial. Basically, most communities in Maine have plainly outgrown the concept of a volunteer fire department or rescue squad.
                 As I see it, there are three primary issues to the matter; 
1-Socio-economic; Most communities served by volunteer or call fire departments are small towns where its residents work outside the community.  Many of these communities don’t have rental property for single men and women or young married couples to live in.  These are the people who may have the time, energy and desire to serve on a VFD.  Yet, to find an available and affordable place to live in a small town can be difficult. So, they have to live in a larger community or city.  Parents of young children who may have a mortgage and reside in a small town, typically don’t have the available time to devote to community service.  Many work multiple jobs to pay the bills. What they have for free time is spent with the family or supporting their children’s activities. And rightfully so. The “empty nesters” aren’t necessarily prone to become volunteer firefighters for various reasons. It is a young person’s avocation.  It is physically demanding. And once you reach retirement age, it’s time to relax.  Additionally, people today have more leisure activities than they did a generation ago.  The Internet, video games, on-demand cable TV channels have replaced a lot of social activity of past generations.   This also detracts from retention of volunteer and call firefighters.  
2-Demand for service;  This is perhaps the most critical issue. The demand for fire and emergency medical services increases each year.  A generation ago, people didn’t have 911 to call for a medical problem.  Calling the fire department for an activated smoke alarm or carbon monoxide alarm was unheard of.  There was no ambulance to call when someone wasn’t feeling well.  Motor vehicle crashes were few and far between.  A generation ago we didn’t have a fraction of the motor vehicle traffic we do today.  Public expectations of the fire service in general have changed, dramatically. Firefighters are called upon for a wide variety of problems.  Service demands occur at all hours of the day or night. Who can afford to get up at 3am, spend 2 or 3 hours on a call, and then be at their regular job for 7 am?  When do most motor vehicle crashes happen?  Commuter time, right? Where are all our volunteer firefighters at during commuter time?  Probably, commuting to or from work.  So who’s going to respond to the car crash?
3-Changing demographics; The demographic make-up of our state is changing rapidly. Maine, being the oldest state in the Nation, has a shortage of young people to serve on VFD’s. Younger Mainers are leaving the state to find work. The recruiting pool for VFD’s is shrinking, while the demand for fire and EMS services continues to increase.  As Maine’s population ages, coupled with the fact that people are living longer, the increase demand on EMS is only going to grow.
                There is a thought by some that the increased training requirements placed on Firefighters and EMTs is a deterrent to recruiting and retention. Maybe. But, professional training is a necessary evil. The people of Maine deserve, and should demand, high quality training and education for our first responders.  These are people who we depend upon to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones.  We call upon them to protect us from chemicals and hazardous materials, enter our burning buildings to save our property, disentangle us from our wrecked automobiles, revive us after an overdose and hold our hand when we’re having a bad day.  I don’t think they get enough training.
                What’s in store for the future?  I am of the opinion, that if communities don’t begin to deal with this problem seriously, and soon, we will be in a severe crisis in 10 years.  Most small towns are not going to be able to financially sustain fleets of fire apparatus and equipment necessary to provide proper fire protection.  Nor will they be able to afford adequately staffed fire stations, either with full-time paid staff or maintain volunteer/call staffs.  Cities and larger communities are also feeling a pain of their own with demand for services and resources. The idea of “anchor” communities just isn’t feasible. We need to increase and grow our entire fire and EMS capability in Maine to meet demand.
                How do we fix this?  There are several options. All require political will and very close trust and cooperation between municipalities.  One option is regionalized fire departments. The creation of regional fire districts does require detailed planning. This takes time and effort.  County and State government need to encourage, promote and provide funding for communities who combine fire departments.  The idea of regional fire districts works in several parts of the United States. Districts that staff what have become referred to as “combination fire departments”.  Meaning, fire stations are staffed with a combination of full-time, part-time and on-call firefighters. (An on-call firefighter is sometimes referred is as a paid volunteer.)  Small towns in Maine need to seriously consider forming county or regional fire districts in order to meet this growing demand for services.
                I applaud the Maine Legislature for forming a working group to look into recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. But, I think recruiting and retention is just one part of a larger problem.  We need to overhaul how fire protection and emergency medical services are delivered in Maine.  A more efficient, sustainable and cost effective method must be found. This is going to be a difficult road. It’s going to take strong leadership, determination and a willingness to except new ideas. Change comes hard in Maine.

Roger S. Hooper

Lyman, ME