Is regionalization the answer to firefighter shortage in Oxford Hills?

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PARIS — Selectmen want to meet with other area officials to talk about the idea of regionalizing fire services and see what they can do to address the growing shortage of firefighters in Oxford Hills.

At the Monday, March 14 Paris selectmen’s meeting, Chairman Mike Risica said he spoke with Norway and Oxford selectmen individually about the need for more firefighters in the area.

“We want to set up a workshop to see if we can brainstorm some ideas …. to solve this problem before it gets really bad,” he said. Risica added the meeting should include selectboards, fire and deputy chiefs. Selectman Sam Elliot suggested firefighters should attend as well.

Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost helped draft a regionalization plan with Norway and Oxford officials some years back and Risica said he still has a copy of the document.

“There’s a lot of good ideas but it just died,” Risica said.

Resident Scott Buffington asked if the plan could be shared with the public and selectmen agreed.

The meeting has tentatively been set up for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13 at the Paris Fire Station at 137 Western Ave. Officials from Norway and Oxford, along with the public, are invited to attend the workshop.

Deputy Fire Chief John Longley spoke to the issue of firefighter shortage in Oxford Hills and beyond, noting local fire departments are pulling from the same pool of firefighters and volunteers.

“The common denominator is people,” he said. “The three or four people we do get are getting exhausted time and time again. … I can tell you personally the last two structure fires, I fought a fire for six hours, went to work, came back and repeated.”

Longley said to get the needed manpower to fight fires, it is now necessary to call out nine to 10 departments instead of the two to three that used to be called out.

“It is embarrassing. At some point, somebody is going to be hurt,” he said.

Longley informed selectmen he is also the fire instructor in the Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico.

“I do not have any short-term solutions for you folks,” he said. “Long term is driving in our youth.”

Elliot asked if a program was being developed at the high school.

Interim Town Manager Sawin Millett said he made contact with people at Oxford Hills/Buckfield Adult Education, Maine Community College and will reach out to representatives at Oxford Hill Technical High School. He added Longley could serve as an instructor if a program was created.

“I think John’s point is we need to target the younger generation,” Millett commented.

Selectman Robert Wessels noted the town has tried unsuccessfully to get more firefighters in its ranks, but is difficult to do so since the $12 an hour job usually requires a second job to make ends meet.

“Regionalization, to me the benefit is you would be able to create some of those full-time or more permanent positions where [firefighters] can count on that income,” he said. “You now have something more alluring to people who are interested but unable to commit to a secondary job.”

Selectman Janet Jamison agreed with her colleague.

“Why would anyone work for a fire department and want to get paid $12 an hour when they can get paid that at Cumberland Farms and not get burned?” she asked.

Jamison tossed out an idea for Paris, Norway and Oxford hiring five full-time firefighters for a living wage and benefits. Longley warned this would drive up the department’s cost and Frost previously said he’d prefer regionalization over a full-time department.

Jamison noted the most important thing is to “figure out how we can cover this damn area 24/7 and make sure our houses don’t burn down.”

Longley told the board about an upcoming event in the Lakes Region that focuses on developing youth firefighting programs and getting younger people involved in the fire service. Risica volunteered to attend with Longley and the two will bring back their finds to next month’s workshop.

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