Harpswell gets plan to establish central Fire Department

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HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen saw an initial three-phase plan to create a central municipal Fire Department at its Oct. 17 meeting, although Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue Chief David Mercier reported that the plan’s time line is “very fluid.”

The plan includes a draft town ordinance; a job description for a municipal fire chief, and a proposed 2017 budget of nearly $295,000. 

“Our time line isn’t to move through phases one, two, and three without any interruption if it’s not necessary,” Mercier said.

Mercier sits on the Fire and Rescue Planning committee, which was formed last April in response to the shortage of daytime firefighters across Harpswell’s three volunteer fire departments.

The three volunteer departments – Orr’s and Bailey Island Fire Department, Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department, and Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue – cover separate geographical regions.

A municipal department would not replace the volunteer system, but augment it where coverage is thinning.

As proposed, Phase 1 would begin in early 2017 by hiring a fire chief and two firefighters, who would at first be housed with the Orr’s and Bailey Island Department. The details of employment and payment are still undetermined, according to the committee’s plan, as are any legal agreements or arrangements involved in integrating municipal and volunteer departments.

Phase 1 also establishes funding for the design and construction of a central station, where the new staff would eventually reside when on duty. 

Mercier could not provide specific design details, which are contingent on hiring an architect. However, he said the town wouldn’t necessarily need to begin construction immediately; the committee’s proposal recommends evaluating the state of the town’s rescue services after each phase before moving to the next phase.

Phase 2 , which committee members said would tentatively begin in 2018, would include building the new central fire station, likely on Mountain Road near the Town Offices.

Phase 3, beginning in 2019, would migrate services to the completed central station and make any necessary adjustments to the number of emergency vehicles needed in town. The department would also review and consider changes to the town’s paramedic services.

The draft ordinance states that the new fire chief would report to the town administrator under a three-year contract, with a salary to be determined by town officers.

A draft budget for 2017 recommends appropriating $25,000 to $27,500 for a part-time chief, with benefits commensurate with other town personnel that would cost approximately $11,500 annually.

Additionally, the draft recommends appropriating $87,360 for two firefighters “to cover 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday” with benefits that would cost the town about $6,700 annually.

The budget also includes allocating $150,000 toward the design and planning of a new central station, and $10,000 for miscellaneous costs associated with the new chief.

Mercier explained that the committee is looking to help offset the budget impact by reducing costs associated with emergency vehicles; during an Aug. 29 committee meeting, Town Treasurer Marguerite Kelly said the savings would amount to around $1 million.

At the same meeting, the committee said a potential fire station would cost $1 million-$2 million to build.

Going forward, the Budget Advisory Committee will review the proposed budget and make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen, who will make a final recommendation and decision about what gets placed on the town warrant for March’s Town Meeting.

Strained volunteer model

Mercier said Oct. 17 that “this situation is not unique to the town of Harpswell.”

What is unique, he acknowledged, is the nature of Harpwell’s aging population, which has caused an increase in the number of service calls and reduced the number of young volunteers.

With a median age of 56.9, Harpswell is the oldest town in the state, according to Harpswell Aging at Home.

In 2015, there was an average of 68 fire calls and 157 EMS calls across the three volunteer departments, according to the town’s annual report.

Benjamin Wallace, joint chief of Cundy’s Harbor and Orr’s and Bailey Island Fire Departments, said the same trends were true for his departments. He estimated that about 70 percent of calls are EMS calls.

“As the population ages in town, the calls for service increase,” Wallace said Monday. “At the same time, our own folks are getting older and looking to step down.”

Mercier told selectmen that the average age of a volunteer firefighter at HNFR is 55-58 years old.

“(Firefighting is) easily considered a young man’s thing, running into burning buildings,” Wallace said.” Structural fires are a very low percentage of our calls, but when they happen, all bets are off. You’re going to be wiped out.”

In the volunteer fire department model, firefighters in the area  are on call. When someone calls 911, a dispatcher sends the message over a radio system.

“That’s when you actually find out who is available,” Wallace said. “You really don’t know with this volunteer system if you’re gonna get one person or 10 people.”

For routine alarm calls, two volunteers are enough. “As soon as you have a fire,” Wallace said, “two people isn’t enough.” 

For a car fire, three volunteers are needed; for a structure fire, the minimum is four, and all three departments respond.

Wallace said so far this year, there have only been three structure fires, all of them coincidentally in the Orr’s and Bailey Islands region.

Wallace said the average response time for his departments is about 12 minutes, with each department covering areas of roughly the same size.

Quantifying the shortage is a challenge, said Wallace, who could only describe the lack of daytime coverage anecdotally. 

Cundy’s Harbor has 23 active volunteers and OBID has 11; each department has three in training.

Wallace said that listening to calls come over the radio, responsiveness varies day to day, but overall, it has gone down.

“It really depends on the circumstances,” he said.

On Sept. 22, Cundy’s Harbor received an alarm call at 11:32 a.m. from the Harpswell Community School on Orr’s Island, about five miles from the station.

Wallace said it took three minutes for the first volunteer to respond. By 11:36 a.m., the call was extended to OBID volunteers, until a minute later, at 11:37 a.m., another Cundy’s Harbor volunteer responded.

Ultimately, three Cundy’s Harbor responders and an OBID engine arrived at the scene of what was fortunately a false alarm – a child at the school had pulled the alarm. 

“The school has an evacuation procedure,” Wallace said. “But you’re dealing with kids.”

Two staff firefighters, he explained, would guarantee that at least the minimum number of responders would be available when someone calls 911.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

The Orr’s and Bailey Island Fire Department is one of Harpswell’s three volunteer fire and rescue departments, all of which report a shortage of daytime coverage. The town is contemplating a new central station and paid staff to augment volunteer services.

Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.