Harpswell taps Howe to manage emergencies

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HARPSWELL — Less than six months after he became Harpswell’s first fire administrator, Art Howe will assume yet another role for the town next week: emergency management agent.

Howe said the job is broad-based and will involve creating plans for and responding to any type of “nontraditional” emergency, in addition to his duties overseeing the volunteer Fire Department. 

“Typically across the country (these events) are weather-related,” Howe said. “It could be storm surges, blizzards, power outages, you name it.”

Prior to being hired as Harpswell’s fire administrator, Howe was head of Portland’s Housing Safety Office, a position that was eliminated in March. In addition to his roles in Harpswell, the South Portland resident also runs an independent consulting business, Howe Safety Services. 

He said while the nontraditional emergencies are usually natural hazards, emergency management could still be involved in the event of a shooting, terrorist attack or plane crash. Additionally, a key part of emergency management is ensuring that residents are prepared in case of a disaster.

“We would like people to be as prepared as possible, (especially) in this day and age of volatile weather, it’s not a question of if something will happen but when,” Howe said. 

He added it is important to be prepared for emergency events, even in regions that have not experienced one recently.

“When you don’t have issues or emergencies people naturally get complacent, even dealing with my own firefighters, we fight and are challenged by complacency all the time,” he said. 

As he begins his new role in January, Howe said a key wintertime safety precaution is to regularly check carbon monoxide detectors and ensure chimneys are clear of snow. In newer houses, he said it is important to make sure heating exhaust pipes located outside the home are clear.

“If you get a blizzard, the wind has potential to blow snow (on the side of) the house,” he said. “That would be a lethal dose of carbon monoxide if (the pipe) were to be blocked.”

One of Howe’s major tasks since joining Harpswell’s staff in mid-July has been to add enough professional firefighters to the volunteer force to cover two full-time shifts during the week. The staffing increase is a direct response to the town’s struggle in recent years to have fire coverage during the day.

Howe said the town’s aging population adds to the need for daytime coverage. According to the 2017 census, Maine has the highest median age of any state in the country. Harpswell has one of the oldest populations in the state, with a median age of 56.9.

Howe added that firefighters have also been expected to undertake more roles related to Emergency Medical Response in recent years, which requires more training that could be too time consuming for volunteers with children. 

“We recognize that the demands have increased, the responses have increased, and it’s a little more acute in Harpswell,” Howe said.

Though he and Town Administrator Kristi Eiane have been involved in the hiring process for months, the firefighter positions have not been filled. The original deadline for applications was Sept. 18, but Howe only received two applications by early September.

The job description and application are still posted on the town’s website

Howe said the hiring process was stalled “about four weeks” due to a change in the background check process. Instead of doing a statewide background check as in the past, he and Eiane have begun using a nationwide check.

He said the desired outcome is to have two firefighters on duty all day Monday through Friday, and that he and Eiane have a few more background checks to process before making decisions.

“We don’t have quite the number (of applicants) we would like ideally,” Howe said. “We have a good quality of candidates; I’m very pleased with the caliber and their backgrounds.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Art Howe, who began work as Harpswell’s first fire administrator in mid-July, will take on the additional title of the town’s emergency management agent next week. 

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