Fire departments in need - Part 2

GARDINER, Maine (WABI) - Wednesday night in part one of Emily Tadlock's special report, she told you about a crisis local fire departments are fighting, a lack of volunteer and paid staff.

This staffing shortage is statewide, and while many departments are getting creative with recruiting, fire officials say it's not enough.

They say it's time for change.

Gardiner Fire Chief, Al Nelson says, "Our society has changed, fire behavior has changed, our technology for fighting fires has changed. I don't think the fire service has changed with it, and we need to do that."

Nelson says 25 years ago, people had on average 15 to 17 minutes to make it out of a burning home, but today that's down to four minutes.

Nelson says, "The construction has changed. What we're putting in our houses has changed."

And responding to a call in four minutes with minimum staffing is almost impossible.

Levant Fire Chief Eric Strout says, "We know there's an issue, so we've got to collectively look at building response plans based upon what our needs are in the region. Seconds matter when it's someone's life at stake. It doesn't matter what's on the side of that truck. It's everybody showing up to help each other."

In Maine, most fire departments are maintained and paid for by individual towns, but that's not the case in many other places across the country.

Many departments in other states have been regionalized - much like schools in Maine.

The idea is to provide coordination or integration of services across town lines so that departments operate as a successful single system.

Nelson says, "I think we need to go to regional departments. In other areas of the country, county departments are big. We need to start regionalizing our departments so that we can get the right people in the right places. Based upon where our calls are, where do we put full time staff?"

Winslow Fire Chief Ronnie Rodriguez says, "Not just the right people but the equipment in the right places."

Nelson says, "Absolutely. So, we position our people and our equipment so that it meets the need of the community, not the way that we've always done it. Which is what we do now."

Departments already assist each other with mutual aid when they can.

But fire officials say regionalizing and setting up automatic aid contracts are more efficient.

Rodriguez says, "With automatic aid agreements, I don't need a heavy rescue. I could use a ladder truck. If you have an incident in a neighboring community, well I'm going to automatically send my ladder truck there. If I have a HAZMAT, a vehicle entrapment or a specialized need for a heavy rescue, well my neighboring community that just invested, they're going to come."

Nelson says, "We work together, as I like to say, we all play in the same sandbox, and we do very well with that, but we don't staff regionally, and I think that's where we need to take that next step."

But regionalizing departments can't just be done with the snap of fingers.

Rodriguez says, "It's not just a simple hey, we'll help you, you help us. There's a lot more that goes into it than just putting an engine here or building a fire station here and having a fire station over here. Because of all that, it takes more than just the chiefs working it out. It has to go up higher, and how is this move going to affect us over here? So, it really is a joint effort that requires a lot of forecasting, and I think it can work out, and I think it can be done."

Fire officials tell me they're making some steps to put regional plans into action, but it's a slow process, and it's going to take two communities following through successfully to get others on board.

For now, they'll keep pushing to recruit as many volunteers and paid staff as they can get.

If you're interested in volunteering or becoming a full-time firefighter, you can call your local department directly for information.