By Leslie H. Dixon
PARIS — For $12 an hour, local firefighters say they have helped rescue and carry their own colleague out the window of a burning house.
They have had rocks thrown at them. They have been spit on.
For $12 an hour, on-call firefighters have rushed into a building believing there was a five-year-old child inside only to be confronted by a man with a gun pointed at them.
This is the reality for local area firefighters who put their lives at risk – not only from the flames but from some of the people they encounter – each time they respond to a call for help.
With more than 200 hours of mandated training, no set “office” hours, the chance to encounter gruesome accident scenes, miss their child’s starring role in a school play and no guarantee that themselves will not be hurt or worse on the job, getting new volunteer firefighters on the local department rosters has become increasingly difficult for some towns.
“Why would anyone want to do this for $12 an hour? We need to move to a paid, full-time fire department. We need to make sure people are safe,” said Paris Selectwoman Janet Jamison as she and other town officials and fire fighters from Norway, Paris and Oxford joined together last week to talk about how they can bolster the volunteer, on call fire department rosters.
The ongoing issue of firefighter shortages, especially at the Paris Fire Department, prompted selectmen in that town to bring together firefighters and town officials from Paris, Norway and Oxford on Wednesday, April 13 to discuss a possible merger or another alternative to the problem that some say is reaching a crisis.
“We have great concerns. There is a disaster on the horizon waiting to happen,” Paris Selectman Vic Hodgkins told the group at the Paris Fire Station.
Fire fighters fight fires, but they also are called out for a host of other duties including motor vehicle extrication, high angle rope rescue, hazmat response, EMS, and all aspects of fire suppression and education.
In Paris, the services are provided to approximately 5,200 residents spread out over 65 square miles.
Lack of adequate staffing necessitates that the three towns work together under mutual aid agreements, but Paris officials say they need more help to resolve the shortage issues. And that, they say, may require rationalization.
“It’s Paris that has the problem,” concedes Fire Chief Brad Frost.
Despite what one person at the meeting called “jaw-dropping” cooperation between the three-town fire departments, it became apparent quickly during the two-hour discussion that no long-term or short-term solution was readily available and at least one department – Norway – does not feel the need to merge with other departments.
“We don’t think we have the same needs as you do,” Norway Town Manager David Holt said, adding that he wanted to be upfront with the Paris officials from the start.
Although the Norway Fire Department officials say it can usually muster enough firefighters, Oxford officials say they are short after 6 p.m. Paris has 35 people on the department roster, Frost said. Only six live in town and some of those work at night, when the need for firefighters is highest, he said.
The Paris Fire Department is a combination department; meaning that it consists of both per diem staff and paid on-call members. The fire department is manned seven days a week during regular business hours and at night paid on-call members respond from their homes.
Each department is pulling from the same pool of firefighters who will don the turnout gear department colors as needed.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” said Jamison who voiced frustration over the lack of an answer.
Oxford Selectman Scott Hunter, the former Oxford fire chief and a full-time firefighter in Auburn, provided the group with a number of scenarios on how a fire department could be structured, ranging from full-time to per-diem.
The problem, he said, is funding those positions.
“There’s not a model that taxpayers will put up with,” he said of the high cost of providing full-time firefighters. “I couldn’t see going to full-time 100 percent.”
The problem of firefighter shortages, they say, is not going away.
“The last four calls, we had four people total [respond],” Paris Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley told the group. Longley, a fire service instructor in the Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico, said they are not seeing young people coming into the fire service like they used to.
And that, he said, may be the only long-term solution to the problem of firefighter shortages.
Longley said that to get the needed manpower to fight fires, it is sometimes necessary to call out nine to 10 departments instead of the two to three that used to be called.
Paris Board of Selectmen Chairman Mike Risica urged fellow selectmen and others, including those from Norway and Oxford, to “put pressure” on the local school districts to expand curriculum to include fire service programs.
While Hodgkins looked toward converting equipment into funds to better staff departments, it became clear quickly that no department was going to give up equipment to provide that funding.
Norway, for example, just spent about $300,000 on a used ladder truck, but Fire Chief Dennis Yates said if he gave that up, insurance rates would skyrocket for homeowners in the area because of how insurance ratings are calculated.
This is not the first time the towns have attempted to merge services.
Frost helped draft a fire department regionalization plan with Norway and Oxford officials some years back, but that plan went nowhere when it was determined that the fire departments did not want to merge. Similar attempts at merging police services have also failed.
In 2012, a one-year trial merger of the Norway and Paris police departments was defeated by Norway special town meeting voters.
The five-page agreement for combined police services between the two towns was developed as a one-year pilot program. The plan had been supported by Norway voters in June. If Paris had agreed to implement it and both towns decided to continue after one year, a transition board would plan a more comprehensive merger of the departments.
Despite the resistance by some to merge fire departments, what was clear at the meeting was that the cooperation, dedication and willingness to assist each other to save lives would not be hindered.
“Thank God I have Norway and Oxford,” said Frost, who has been telling selectmen for the past several years that his department’s dwindling roster is reaching a crisis point. “I don’t want to lose them. I can’t afford to lose them.”
Paris selectmen said they would continue to meet with members of the three departments and town officials in an attempt to come up with ideas that will work.