Maine Officials: Volunteer Firefighter Crisis Needs Larger Conversation

While solutions to the looming crisis facing small Maine fire departments are being weighed in the Legislature and individual departments, state and regional officials say problems recruiting and retaining a dwindling number of volunteer firefighters needs a broader focus, reports

House Speaker Mark Eves, who has sponsored legislation to help ease the financial crunch small departments face, said targeting a certain issue will help a little, but there has to be a larger conversation.

But legislation to help ease the financial burden on towns or offer incentives to firefighters so far hasn’t had the support of Gov. Paul LePage, and other officials have issues ranging from costs to the amount of control that may be taken away from municipal governments.

“I have to believe that there is a lot more to it to solve the problem,” Eves, a North Berwick Democrat, said. “We need to understand exactly why there is a decline and that shortage of volunteers.”

Last week, the Morning Sentinel reported that the declining numbers of volunteer firefighters is threatening communities’ ability to offer an essential public service. Small departments have tightened budgets and struggle to maintain a roster of fully trained staff, while the demand and cost for fire and rescue services increases.

Some department chiefs said they barely have enough fully trained firefighters to perform certain tasks, such as interior attacks on burning buildings. The situation at many small Maine departments is nearing a crisis level, said Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

The most focused attack on the problem in Maine is legislative action to ease the financial burden on departments and to help recruit and keep volunteers.

The Maine State Federation of Firefighters, Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association and Maine Fire Protection Services Commission testified this session for a financial rewards program for those with longevity in a volunteer department, a bill vetoed last session by Gov. Paul LePage, who said it “expands state government at a time when the taxpayers of Maine can least afford it.”

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