Fire departments in need - Part 1

Published: Feb. 20, 2019 at 3:59 PM EST
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Fire departments across the state, both rural and urban, are experiencing staffing shortages.

These shortages are reaching dangerous levels as it interferes with their ability to perform their jobs.

Emily Tadlock spoke with fire departments about this crisis and ways they're looking for solutions.

Chief Eric Strout of the Levant Fire Department says, "I'm going to say it's critical. If you look at pockets throughout Maine, there are agencies, fire departments, that are shutting down."

Fire departments are finding it hard to recruit volunteers and paid staff alike.

Strout says, "Departments are facing staffing struggles to try to find people that want to volunteer. They have multiple jobs, they have families they are raising, and the time that they have when they're not at work is basically their down time or free time. So, they don't have a lot of time they want to give to departments. It's no secret, the world of public safety is not a high paying position, so there's not a lot of younger generation coming through to want to go into that."

Dwindling numbers makes for dangerous situations.

Chief Jeff Chretien of the Newport Fire Department says, "If it's a fire and someone is trapped inside of a building, it takes more than one person to go in and help them. You need a team of people. Seconds count in this business. Even though we have 35-40 people here on the roster, we could have a call come in at a certain time of the day and have nobody. We don't have staff 24 hours a day. When the tone goes off and everybody is busy, they're not around, we could be in trouble."

Chief Ronnie Rodriguez of the Winslow Fire Department says, "When you run with very minimum staffing, there is very limited communication between a neighboring town that's coming in and people on the scene. It's imperative that we have at a minimum, the right number of people on hand at any given time."

Departments are getting creative in how they recruit.

The Newburgh Fire Department has strategically placed signs in busy intersections to inform folks they are looking for staff.

Others like the Gardiner Fire Department are using social media..

Chief Al Nelson of the Gardiner Fire Department says, "They started it in jest, but it was so good, I said let's put this out on Facebook, and we actually recruited a couple of people after they watched the video that wanted to come work for Gardiner because of what they put in the video. So, we've done some stuff on social media just to get the word out, but it's hard. The desire to be a public servant isn't necessarily there like it was when we were young."

Several of the departments offer a junior fire fighter program - reaching out to the younger generation.

Chretien says, "Anybody 16 and over, as long as they have a valid driver's license, they can join the fire department in a limited role. We take them out on calls, they learn, and hopefully when they graduate high school, they come join us and do it for as long as they can."

But fire officials say simply recruiting won't solve the issue.

Nelson says, "We should not be focusing on just meeting the bare minimum."

Rodriguez says, "You don't want to go to a dentist that just knows how to brush teeth. The fire service has evolved from putting water on fire to doing, we do everything."

And to do everything, fire officials say you need help from neighboring towns and a plan in place.

Rodriguez says, "If it wasn't for the fact that we have mutual aid already worked out between the communities, our property loss would be a lot higher."

Nelson says, "It is a matter of time before something tragic happens. It's that simple. We need people."

Departments are continuing to search for ways to save money and work together.

A term, regionalization, is popping up amongst those in the fire service.

Thursday night in part two of Emily Tadlock's special report, she talks about how the state of Maine's fire departments differ from those around the country and how many in the service say it's time for a change.