Harpswell hires former Portland official to lead firefighting transition

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HARPSWELL — The former head of Portland’s Housing Safety Office will be the town’s first fire administrator.

Art Howe was described as “uniquely qualified” when the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously July 6 to hire the 63-year-old South Portland resident.

Howe, who started work Monday, July 10, and will remain president of his independent consulting business, Howe Safety Services, will oversee the town’s gradual transition to professional firefighting services.

Howe’s salary will be $57,000, and will increase by $2,000 in 2018 when he also becomes the town’s emergency management agent – what he called an “all-encompassing” job overseeing Harpswell’s safety, rescue, and weather management operations.

The town’s three volunteer fire departments, headed by two volunteer chiefs, have struggled over the past few years to provide adequate coverage during the day as volunteers have grown older without being replaced.

A committee was formed a year ago to confront the problem, and at Town Meeting in March voters approved its recommendation to augment volunteer services with two professional firefighters and a fire administrator.

“I’m really at their beck and call,” Howe said of the volunteer departments in an interview immediately following his appointment. 

In addition to overseeing the two new paid firefighters, Howe’s major focus will be on volunteer recruitment and retention, as well any miscellaneous administrative, training, or maintenance tasks needed by the volunteer departments.

He will be based in the town offices on Mountain Road, although that could change depending on whether the town decides to build a central fire station.

The soon-to-be-hired paid firefighters, who will work weekdays during the day, will be housed at the Orr’s and Bailey Island Department.

An interview committee composed of Town Administrator Kristi Eiane, Selectman Kevin Johnson, and Harpswell Neck volunteer Chief David Mercier recommended Howe over 20 other applicants.

Eiane said he appeared before the committee with a scrupulous understanding of Harpswell’s situation and needs, having already studied reports issued by the year-old planning committee devoted to the problem.

“This is a national challenge, not a Harpswell challenge,” Howe said of the town’s thinning ranks of volunteers.

Eiane said Howe has demonstrated a commitment to providing excellent customer service, and cited his mix of administrative, advisory, and firefighting experience for earning the committee’s recommendation.

Howe said the opportunity to spearhead a “new endeavor” attracted him to the job.

“One (reason) was the novelty,” he said.

Novelty was in part the reason, he added, that he took on his previous job in Portland, which was created in September 2015 to improve housing safety following the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. that killed six people.

The city eliminated the position in March.

He also said he “liked the sense of community embraced (in Harpswell).”

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

Art Howe was hired July 6 as Harpswell’s fire administrator. He formerly headed Portland’s Housing Safety Office, a position the city eliminated in March.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.