HARPSWELL — When Art Howe was hired July 6 as Harpswell’s first fire administrator, it was the town’s first major step toward augmenting its volunteer rescue system with paid services.
This month, Howe will oversee the next step: hiring paid firefighters to supplement the town’s shortage of daytime coverage.
Beyond the guarantee that at least two people will be available to respond to 911 calls during the day, he said the action could entice people to become involved in rescue and public safety services.
“Can we make it attractive enough financially and culturally to have (applicants) come and commit to an 8-12 hour day in Harpswell?” Howe said in late August.
He told selectmen last month he expects to hire eight to 10 part-time firefighters to fill the equivalent of two full-time shifts Monday-Friday. By Tuesday, Sept. 5, he had received two applications.
Howe said he will determine scheduling once he looks at the applicant pool, which, he imagines, will draw full-time area firefighters seeking extra shifts.
Once hired, those firefighters will provide assistance to the town’s three volunteer departments, which have reported waning, aging rosters for the past few years, mirroring a national drop-off in the ranks of volunteer rescue services.
Early last year, Harpswell Neck Fire Chief David Mercier, whose department hasn’t added a new volunteer firefighter in nearly three years, asked the town to help combat the dwindling numbers. He said he didn’t want a time to come when someone called 911 and there weren’t enough people to answer.
In response, the Fire and Rescue Planning Committee formed in spring 2016 and has since developed a phased plan to augment the volunteer departments. The plan was implemented by hiring a fire administrator and will culminate with a municipal fire station on Mountain Road.
There is no set time line; plans will unfold as needed, the committee said when they presented the plan.
After eight weeks on the job, Howe already has a long to-do list of areas where he can improve the town’s public safety services.
From improving water supply sourcing during firefighting to quicker rescues across the town’s residential and uninhabited islands, he said he takes a “holistic” approach to his job.
His primary goal, however, is to preserve the independent volunteer departments while increasing the level of customer service and emergency response services available to town residents.
“Every department has its own unique culture,” Howe said, noting the distinct camaraderie within Harpswell’s three departments, as well as departments across the country.
Residents have long cited the culture as a reason to volunteer, and Howe said he wants to preserve it. But he said he needs to create a different set of incentives to attract firefighters from outside the Harpswell community, especially for a part-time shift.
Ideally, those steps would improve safety services for the entire town.
He suggested the strategy would involve expanding the purview of the town’s fire departments beyond their basic duties – mainly, responding to 911 calls – as that would draw a wider pool of applicants.
“I’m looking to move the public safety bar forward, and one of the ways to do that is to create a culture that is inviting and welcoming, and also one that is stimulating,” he said. “With the (relative) lack of emergency activity in Harpswell, we have to find ways to keep (new recruits) motivated and use their time effectively toward appropriate safety goals.”
That shift would reflect the ever-growing role of modern fire departments, Howe noted, which today are expected to do more than just put out fires. Firefighters require more kinds of training and perform a wider range of public safety duties than they did when Howe started as a firefighter in the 1980s, he said.
Harpswell, strapped for manpower and resources, could theoretically offer more of those services, and improve its existing ones. With help from town staff and paid assistance, departments might soon perform car inspections and fix the town’s dry hydrants.
“I’m looking to these people” – paid and volunteers firefighters – “to help move and enhance that safety bar,” he said.
Orr’s and Bailey Islands EMT and firefighter Paul Kittle practices using the Jaws of Life rescue tool under the supervision of instructor Jonathan Burbank at a Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department training in July. The town is set to hire per diem firefighters this month to augment its waning roster of volunteers.