Harpswell panel floats central fire station, paid firefighters

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HARPSWELL — The town’s three volunteer fire departments plan to ask their members and the public how they feel about adding paid staff and a new fire station.

All three departments have reported a shortage of volunteers and inadequate daytime coverage, which prompted a Fire and Rescue Planning Committee to be formed in April.

To address the shortage, the committee is considering plans to restructure rescue services around a centralized municipal fire station, likely on Mountain Road, that will house a new chief and an unconfirmed number of paid staff.

As the proposal stands now, the project would begin in 2017 and unfold in three phases over three years, starting with hiring a new chief and staff, and ending with the construction of a central station. The Orr’s and Bailey Island department would house the staff during the construction period.

The details of each phase are still preliminary, but an early glimpse revealed at a committee meeting Monday night showed that reducing duplicate emergency vehicles across the three departments would offset a significant part of the increased cost of the new station and staff.

“This is not strictly additive to the town’s budget,” Town Treasurer Marguerite Kelly said Monday.

The new fire station will cost the town between $1 million and $2 million, but Kelly estimated that reducing the number of emergency vehicles will produce about $1 million in savings.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said Tuesday that the town began to purchase emergency vehicles in 2008 and lease them to the separate fire departments.

She said project planning has been a collaboration between the town and the three departments, which are independently operated organizations. As such, while providing emergency service coverage is a responsibility of the town, it currently falls outside of its direct management. For that reason, Eiane refrained from commenting on how much she thought public opinion would affect the plans.

Cundy’s Harbor Fire Chief Ben Wallace told Monday’s meeting that discussions to solve the shortage began when the Harpswell Neck Volunteer Fire Department informed the town it was running out of manpower, especially during the day.

The town then learned the problem wasn’t unique to Harpswell Neck. “I’m having service calls go unanswered,” Wallace said.

“We’re not trying to replace the volunteer system,” he continued. “We’re trying to augment it to guarantee (a) response” when people call 911.

While the committee will have to wait and see what the public thinks of its plans until a Sept. 12 meeting, early feedback was received Monday night during public comment. Though there was no vocal objection to the idea of hiring municipal fire employees, some members of the public accused the committee of missing the bigger picture.

John Moore, a Harpswell Neck resident and retired businessman who plans to become a volunteer firefighter, had concerns about what he called the committee’s failure to address how it will solve the problem of recruiting volunteers.

“I ran a large company and I had recruitment issues. And building a new building won’t solve it,” Moore said.

“So what are you going to do different?” he continued, suggesting that “a shiny new building” and “a little sign” calling for volunteers around town wouldn’t resolve anything.

Nelson Barter, a volunteer firefighter and former professional firefighter at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, countered some of Moore’s remarks.

“To say we’ve just put a sign up at the dump – we’ve done more than that. I’ve seen 30 years of recruitment and retention issues, ” he said. “We are burning out. We’re facing multiple issues. Demographics is one of them.”

Barter’s input echoed comments that Wallace made earlier in the meeting. He said the average firefighter sticks around for about one to two years. Consequently, the core of his department has remained the same group of volunteers, all of whom are growing older.

Harpswell Neck Fire Chief Dave Mercier added that the average age of his firefighters is more than 50, and they are especially vulnerable to the risks of the job.

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

Edited to clarify the terms of the town’s leasing emergency vehicles.

The Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue station.

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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.