New volunteers help, but Harpswell fire departments are still in need

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HARPSWELL — David Alison choked up when he recalled the day earlier this month when he responded to one of his first calls as an Orr’s and Bailey Island volunteer firefighter.

It was a critical medical emergency, and the town’s contract EMT had rushed to another call just minutes earlier. Fortunately, enough volunteers were available, and Alison said together they resuscitated the caller in barely enough time to save her life.

Alison is one of the six new volunteer firefighters who joined the Cundy’s Harbor and Orr’s and Bailey Island volunteer fire departments last month – the largest cohort of volunteers to join in recent history.

His experience so far has proved that volunteering provides an essential, meaningful service – and that there aren’t enough people to do it.

Ben Wallace, joint chief of both departments, said he was heartened by the surge of volunteers, but described the influx as a drop in the bucket compared to what the town needs to overcome its overall shortage  – a problem that recently led the town to augment its volunteer system with paid support.

“We need about three times that many people,” Wallace said of the six new volunteers.

Wallace said he hopes some of the new recruits will get further training as emergency medical technicians, because the town is once again lacking an adequate number of EMT responders.

The town hires a paramedic from Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, but as Alison described earlier this month, sometimes calls come in rapid succession and a single paramedic isn’t enough to rely on.

Across town, the Harpswell Neck Fire Department has not added a new volunteer to its ranks in at least two years, according to Chief David Mercier.

It was Mercier who told town officials more than a year ago that his department – which has a roster of 35 volunteers, many of whom are reaching retirement age – was having trouble providing daytime coverage.

Harpswell’s aging population has meant an increase in fire calls – particularly medical calls – while fewer young people are joining the volunteer ranks to answer them.

The town formed a committee to plan around the problem in April 2016, and at Town Meeting in March voters approved a gradual transition toward professional services to aid the volunteer departments.

The town hired former Portland city official Art Howe earlier this month in a newly created fire administrator position; Howe will hire two paid firefighters to help with daytime coverage. 

Howe also said when he was hired that he will focus his time on recruiting and retaining volunteers, which will remain the backbone of the town’s rescue services.

Although the recruitment effort is takes time, those who have made the commitment said they did so out of a sense of civic duty.

“I said, hey, this is my way of giving back to a community that I absolutely fell in love with,” Alison said.

Peter Vincent, who recently joined the Cundy’s Harbor roster, agreed “it is a pretty good feeling to help somebody that’s having their worst day ever.”

To get basic certification as a firefighter, a volunteer is required to sacrifice six months of mostly evenings and weekends for physically and psychologically demanding coursework and simulation activities.

Alison said he plans to get trained as an EMT next fall, in addition to several other advanced fire certifications.

The camaraderie and reward he’s experienced in Harpswell has persuaded him to consider training to do the job professionally, he said.

For Sven Pulsifer, a new volunteer in Cundy’s Harbor, the issue is about more than responding to a 911 call.

Reflecting on his motivations for volunteering, he expressed a need for a greater, more comprehensive investment in Harpswell’s future.

“We are the oldest town in Maine and having ample volunteers (and perhaps incentives for moving to or volunteering in Harpswell) could help that demographic trend change,” Pulsifer said in an email. 

“Helping out where one can with our three fire departments is one way to be part of the solution,” he continued, but said the community could go further: build businesses, raising families, protect the working waterfront, and “(promote) young folks to stay and build their family here.”

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

Jonathan Burbank, left, of the Cundy’s Harbor Fire Department, oversees car accident rescue training for Cundy’s Harbor and Orr’s and Bailey Islands firefighters on July 19 in Cundy’s Harbor.

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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.