OXFORD HILLS — As it continues to become harder to recruit enough people to join the ranks of fire departments, local officials are looking at a long-term solution they say can benefit everyone – a junior firefighter program at the high school.
Roughly a month ago, local fire officials – including Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates, Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones and Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost – sat down with representatives from SAD 17 to discuss developing a program, which could be launched as early as the spring semester.
“We’re always looking at programming, what’s new, what’s a good thing for our community, our kids,” Oxford Hills Tech School Director Shawn Lambert said. “I welcomed the chance to have a conversation with them. We talked about different possibilities.”
Two weeks ago, the chiefs wrote a draft to standardize the junior program. Last week, they sat down with the Advertiser Democrat to talk about the potential program.
Paris Interim Town Manager Bill Guindon – who has extensive experience in the fire industry and got his career started at the age of 16 through a junior firefighter program – said not only would Paris, Norway and Oxford gain new recruits from such a program, but all of the Oxford Hills’ 11 fire departments could benefit as well.
“It has the potential to really grow and just expand to the other towns,” he said. “We’re not trying to isolate [the program to the three towns], a core group has to start it.”
One of the major issues fire departments across the country – including those in the Oxford Hills – face is aging firefighters. The national average age of a firefighter is 54, Paris Deputy Chief Jon Longley said.
Guindon noted if there is a major fire in one of the three towns, at the very minimum, Paris, Oxford and Norway fire departments will be on scene.
“There has been a lot of attempts to recruit firefighters, on call, per diem, whatever. I think these gentlemen recognize the issues they’re having as far as low numbers … is not something they face on their own,” Guindon said, motioning to the three chiefs and their support staff.
Other recruitment issues include people being less civic-minded than they were in the past and the extensive training requirements. To become a basic firefighter, it takes 250 hours of training, plus test time, Longley said.
“Every department knows what the problem is. We’re working on a way to fix that problem,” Norway Capt. and Paris per diem Firefighter Jay Morin said.
During their conversations, Lambert told the fire officials the steps required to start an ed tech program in Maine.
“I explained to them tech programs have to get approved by the state. There is a whole process involved,” he said. “It has to look at employable positions and unfortunately with fire science a lot of the positions are volunteer. That said, there are ways around that. It’s not a deal killer.”
Currently, Lambert is eyeing three possibilities for a junior firefighter program in the Oxford Hills. They include the tech school hosting its own full-blown program, partnering with Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico, which already has its own junior firefighter program, or splitting instructors with Region 9.
“What if we were somehow able to pay for transportation between our two schools? Region 9 has a some programs we don’t have and vice versa,” Lambert said, adding he’s exploring using Western Maine Transportation as a shuttle between the schools.
Longley, who has been the fire science instructor at Region 9 for five years, said the curriculum for the program is already written by the National Fire Protection Association. Student ages 14-17 are required to have 350 contact hours – or “getting real live experience,” as Guindon calls it – before they can take their certification test.
“There’s a minimum standard that’s a nationally recognized standard they’re tested to,” Guindon said, noting the curriculum is more aggressive than normal high school programs. “Either you did it or you didn’t.”
Morin added high school is the perfect time to get youth interested in firefighting.
“It’s a lot easier to get them trained when they’re in school because they’re in that mode of learning versus myself – I graduated in 1994,” he said.
Once completed, students would earn six college credits through Southern Maine Community College or Eastern Maine Community College and could continue to receive free credits if they continue with the hazmat or emergency services portion of the program, according to Longley.
Funding such a program is a concern for all parties involved, but the fire chiefs told Lambert they might have access to some federal grant money he does not.
Currently, there are five Oxford Hills students who want to sign up for Region 9’s junior firefighter program, including Morin’s 15-year-old daughter, who attended a junior firefighter program in Vermont this summer. He said his daughter wasn’t fazed when she got in a little bit of trouble and her cellphone was taken away, but noted she “was just devastated” when they took her fire pager away.
“Once they get out there and get into it, I know it’s something they’ll enjoy,” Morin said about area youth and firefighting.
Lambert said he hasn’t surveyed students recently to see if they would sign up for a junior firefighter program.
“I know anecdotally there is student interest,” he said. “There is just probably more unknowns than knowns but … there is an expressed concern and need and we’re exploring all that.”
For the Region 9 program, Longley said there’s an 88 percent success rate, calling it “phenomenally high.”
“I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but it’s one of the highest out there,” he said.
Guindon said a junior firefighter program in Oxford Hills could be just as equally successful here, as the infrastructure, equipment and instructors are already in place. Students would be mentored by fire department personnel and receive cross training from different departments.
Oxford Fire Chief Jones credits a junior firefighting program for launching his career.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for a junior program when I was 14 years old – no question in my mind,” he said.
The entire community will reap the benefits of a junior firefighter program, officials say, including students, fire departments and residents.
“We can train everybody. A lot of these students who are not successful academically become superstars in these programs,” Longley said. “It has turned students around. Probably they would have been on the other side of the law [if they didn’t participate in the program].”
Graduating from the junior firefighter program would give students job security, according to Longley.
“We always talk about struggling [to find] jobs and finding active work. Any graduate who had success could find employment instantly through this program,” he said as the fire chiefs nodded their heads in agreement.
Such a program would bolster local fire departments’ rosters and have new recruits ready to hit the ground running.
“I think one of the biggest bonuses from having a program like this [is] they come completely trained and ready to work,” Longley said. “That is an incredible relief to any chief or training officer.”
Morin said it would give some relief to older firefighters.
“I am 41 years old. If we train a kid to take the nozzle and I don’t have to [that’s great],” he said, as he gave the thumbs up sign.
And Guindon added having more people on local fire departments’ rosters will continue to keep communities safe.
“The outcome is the residents benefit from it. They have people who are properly trained and equipped,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight but it takes some participation from parents, requires residents … to say, ‘Yes, this is really important to us.’”
Those interested in a junior firefighter program in the Oxford Hills can contact the fire chiefs and/or Lambert. Their information is: Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates, 743-5300; Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost, 743-6832; Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones, 539-4509 firstname.lastname@example.org, and Oxford Hills Tech School Director Shawn Lambert, 743-8914 or email@example.com.