Coming up short: Oxford Hills departments need more firefighters

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OXFORD HILLS — There is a growing problem plaguing local fire departments and some chiefs say it’s not just their towns, but statewide, in fact a countrywide issue – firefighter shortages.

So much so that Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost and Oxford Fire Chief Wayne Jones have each put out the call for more people to join their respective departments in hopes to bolster their rosters to have enough coverage to safely fight fires and respond to other emergencies.

The shortage

Both departments are a mix of per diem and on-call firefighters. Frost is in search of on-call firefighters, while Jones is looking for both. Paris selectmen gave Frost the green light Monday night to find another per diem employee after one cut his hours back.

“We are not the only ones with problems in Paris. It is statewide,” Frost said.

“It is a common theme all across the United States,” Jones said. “Everybody is struggling and has been for years.”

Frost currently has 39 people on his roster but has problems staffing the fire station during the evenings and weekends.

“I never know when anybody is going to be around. It’s a roll of a coin really,” he said, noting he only had two people to respond to a fire at 1 a.m. recently. “I am running with three people and that’s minimum. I should have four.”

Jones has 34 on his roster and is able to staff the department during the day, seven days a week. He aims to have two cross-trained firefighter/EMTs to cover the weekend and only has on-call coverage at night.

“You look at Oxford, Paris, then you head toward the coast, [we] all hire per diems,” he said. “It’s tough to even hire people to fill [positions] because everybody is trying to share from that same pool of employees.”

But it isn’t only these full-time fire chiefs who are feeling the squeeze of the firefighter shortage. Chiefs in smaller departments are also under pressure.

“Everybody is feeling it in the whole state. We’re all shorthanded especially during the daytime. Nighttime it’s a 50/50 [chance],” said West Paris Fire Chief Norm St. Pierre.

His department is a paid volunteer model, who are paid per call they respond to, as are those serving in Harrison and Buckfield.

“A lot of times they are called ‘volunteers’ but a true volunteer is getting very nominal pay,” Jones explained about the structure used most often by smaller Oxford Hills fire departments.

St. Pierre has 18 people on his roster, but he and the rest of the area fire chiefs rely heavily on mutual aid.

“If I had a fire call right now, I would probably get one [firefighter],” he said, noting there needs to be roughly 20 people to respond to a residential fire. “Sometimes to even do a house fire, you have to call in 12 or 13 departments.”

St. Pierre recalled a fire in early January that took that many departments and people to extinguish it. He said it often looks like there’s a lot of people responding to a structure fire, but there may only be 12 or 13 who are certified to go into the burning building.

“A lot of times if I get to the scene, I will wear an air pack, especially if you have to go save a life or something like that,” St. Pierre said, adding many people expect the chief to command the scene and not necessarily be so hands-on. “You have to buck up and put on your pack and get to work. I’ve done that several times and put other people in command that weren’t able to go in.”

Jones concurred with the number of people it takes to safely fight a fire, adding even his slightly larger department relies on mutual aid.

“We’re rolling out the door with four, provided the rescuers are already on the ambulance,” he said.

Harrison Fire Chief Dana Laplante – who also works for Paris Fire Department – and Buckfield Fire Chief Tim Brooks both have problems with daytime coverage during the work week. Brooks called this “our scary point,” and tries to staff weekdays with crossed-trained firefighters and EMTs if possible so the fire and rescue departments can split the cost and respond to any call.

And it’s not every day I can have them either,” Brooks said.

Anomaly?

The only Oxford Hills fire department bucking the shortage trend is Norway.  Fire Chief Dennis Yates has 45 people on his roster, which is strictly paid volunteer, sans Yates, who is a full-time paid chief.

“We’re holding our own right now. We’re very fortunate to have the people that we have,” Yates said. “There’s a few times we could probably use a few more people. We call mutual aid at any time we have a structure fire. We automatically have mutual aid from Oxford, Paris and PACE. That’s something the three chiefs … set up.”

The problem

Laplante’s Harrison roster consists of 43 people, which initially looks plentiful, but he estimates he only has 15 to 20 active members. He has a few retired guys who can respond to daytime calls, but the younger and middle-aged firefighters can’t.

“They work out of town. They’re just not around to help me during the day,” Laplante said.

Frost only has nine people on his roster who are trained to do interior firefighting work who live in the town of Paris, but every single one of them works out of town.

“People are working a couple of jobs just to keep their head above water,” he said.

The struggle is similar in West Paris.

“People have to work and support their families, pay for insurance. It is kind of crazy and volunteer fire departments don’t pay for our insurance or any health benefits,” St. Pierre said. “It’s just a sign of the times. Volunteerism, it’s nice to do but it’s going by the wayside. It is tough.”

Brooks has 17 people on his roster and half of his members do not live in Buckfield.

“It’s hard so that leaves us eight members out of a population of a little over 2,000,” he said. “A third of my members – the ones that are EMTs – they work at at least one other if not two other services because it [EMT work] does not pay that much.”

Over in Oxford, Jones said much of the issue is because of the changing times. When he first began firefighting at 14, families normally only needed one parent to work while the other stayed home with the kids.

“That allowed for different opportunities at that point in time,” he said, which included firefighting. “It’s not that way anymore. Both the partners in the home need to work. Most of the time it is full time. It doesn’t leave them a lot of time.”

Also in the same vein of employment are the days gone by where thriving mill towns and manufacturing industries allowed for locals to not only work in town, but be able to answer fire calls while on duty at their day jobs.

“They can’t afford to let their workers go on fire [calls],” Jones said about today’s businesses. “I can’t even think of an instance of a company that does that anymore.”

Changing industry

Jones and Frost, who both have been in the fire industry for roughly four and five decades respectively, have seen their fair share of changes in firefighting business over the years. Brooks and Laplante agreed with their colleagues that their training and regulations have become more stringent. This sometimes deters people from joining the fire service.

“People can’t just give the time like they used to. A lot of time people come in and they find out how much it requires to be a fireman and they’re like, ‘I don’t have a lot of time,’” Laplante said.

Brooks noted there are 328 hours of training needed to just become a firefighter, which not only includes the firefighter I and II courses, but additional training on driving, pump operation, hazmat and other areas.

“And that’s just the mandatory. Every year we have to have refreshers,” he said. “You do not drive our trucks unless you can pump with the pump.”

On top of the additional training, the nature of the fire service has changed over the 25 years Laplante been involved. When he first started out, he mostly responded to house and chimney fires and only a few car accidents.

We’re not just doing fire stuff anymore. We’re expected to do EMS calls and we’re expected to do car accidents,” the Harrison chief said. “We’re a jack-of-all-trades. If there’s an emergency, people call 911 and expect the fire department to show [up].”

Now, these emergency responses run the gamut and include not only fires, accidents and medical issues, but gas spills and leaks and fire and carbon monoxide alarm activations, Laplante added.

The solution?

Laplante and St. Pierre in West Paris look toward the models of Poland, Paris, Oxford, Woodstock and Greenwood, which have designated coverage during the day.

“I think the wave of the future … is putting people on during the day,” Laplante said. “As much as I don’t want to do that I think that’s one of the way we’re going to solve daytime coverage problems.”

Frost ideally would like area fire departments to regionalize and share resources.

Roughly a decade or so ago, Frost and the Oxford and Norway fire chiefs looked into regionalizing at the request of their selectboards and town managers. They spent months working on a proposal, he said.

“We turned it in and nothing was ever said about it – positive or negative,” Frost said. “It went in the back room and nothing happened with it.”

Paris selectmen are considering looking into the issue again, and regionalizing fire services is something Laplante could get behind.

“Especially in the chief’s position, there’s so much work for the chief to do that’s administrative in nature, there’s not enough time to for the fire chief to do it,” he said, noting he has some clerks in Harrison and members of his department who help him with paperwork. “I could easily spend 40 hours a week doing the job. They’re not going to pay me 40 hours a week and I have to make a living to pay my bills.”

Neither Frost nor Jones want to go to a paid full-time fire department, but can’t totally discount it. Frost looked into it a while ago and didn’t remember the exact cost and Jones hasn’t explored it yet.

“It’s expensive anyway then you start throwing in holidays, vacations and benefits and the cost goes up tremendously,” Frost said. “Most people who [fight fires] are in it because they want to help the community.”

Prior to arriving in Oxford, Jones worked in Westbrook, where the city’s paid full-time fire and rescue departments had a combined budget of $2.6 million. He noted most of that paid for salaries.

“To go full time that’s really tough for a community to swallow,” he said. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet but you always have to keep it on the shelf because you might be forced there at some point.”

To join

Brooks is looking for anyone who wants to help him out, not only those wishing to fight fires.

“I will take anybody that just wants to direct traffic,” he said. “I will take anybody.”

Anyone interested in serving on the Buckfield Fire Department can call Brooks at home at 336-2612 or at the town office at 336-2521.

Anyone looking to help out Paris Fire Department can stop down at the station during business hours at 137 Western Ave. or call Frost at 743-6832.

Those wanting to join Oxford Fire Department can call Jones at 539-4509 or email him at wjones@oxfordfirerescue.com.

Department             FY 2015 operating budget          Roster

Paris                        $418,741                                    39

Oxford                     $341,338                                    34

Norway                    $264,000                                    45

Buckfield                   $107,905                                   17

Harrison                    $97,341                                     43

West Paris                 $80,000 approximately                18

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