ELLSWORTH — The proposed Fire Department budget is up 5.02 percent over last year to $1,266,831, according to figures provided by staff at City Hall.
“I’d like to consider us an insurance package,” said Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper at a budget meeting on May 6. “Insurance isn’t cheap. Neither are we, neither is the Police Department.”
Tupper repeated what he has told councilors at meetings for years: volunteers are harder and harder to come by and staffing is a constant struggle.
“The career side is edging up,” said Tupper, but “volunteerism is a thing of the past, quite frankly.”
The department responded to 566 emergency calls in 2018, Tupper said, compared to 386 a decade earlier.
“That’s a 32 percent increase in call volume,” said Tupper, “and I only see that increasing.”
And yet the number of firefighters available to respond to those calls is shrinking.
“When I started in 1985 we had a roster of 40 people,” Tupper said. “We’re down to 25, including career and paid-on-call.”
Those who are paid-on-call are turning out less and less, said Tupper, either due to age or the demands of work or family.
“Even though I’ve got four interior firefighters they’re unintentionally unreliable,” he told councilors. “We need firefighters on duty, ready to go to work to answer the call as it comes in.”
City Councilor Dale Hamilton asked Tupper to send the council information on staffing in similarly sized communities, which Tupper said he had gathered and would present to councilors.
“With the population growing, we have to look at these issues now and not put it off, because putting it off would be too late,” Hamilton said.
Tupper said that in reaching out to other communities, “We have found that they’re saying exactly what I’m saying here. Many of them have done away with the paid-on-call side of things.”
A majority of Maine’s 335 fire departments — 73 percent — still rely entirely on volunteers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
But the number of volunteers available to those departments has shrunk dramatically in the past three decades, from 12,000 in the early 1990s to around 7,000 today, according to the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.
And while fighting fire has become safer — the number of deaths and injuries of both civilians and firefighters is down significantly since 1980 — the cost of doing so (in part due to safety requirements) has increased.
Nationwide, municipalities spent $5.7 billion on fire protection in 1980, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2014, that number was $41.9 billon, not including an estimated $46.9 billion in donated time from volunteers. Even adjusted for inflation, the figure has more than doubled.
The chief also asked for “pre-permission” to apply for a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant next year. The department has been awarded the grant at least once before, in 2012.
That funding ($234,476) covered the cost of salaries and benefits for two firefighters for two years, according to reporting in The American at the time.
“It’s a grant process and there’s certainly no guarantee,” said Tupper, but “the need for firefighters is always going to be there.”
In other staffing needs, Tupper told councilors that the city’s fire inspector, Mike Hangge, is set to retire and “we need time to train somebody. Fire inspectors are few and far between. It takes quite a time frame to get someone trained to build a rapport.”
The department’s budget also includes money to train firefighters as basic emergency medical technicians in a course offered through the city’s partnership with Northern Light Emergency Medical Transport.
A $10,000 grant will cover tuition for the class, said Tupper, which will be held in Ellsworth. But the city also will need to expend roughly $32,850 in overtime payroll costs for trainees. To offset some of the costs, said Tupper, he has adjusted his training budget for fire-related courses to $5,000, or roughly half of what he has spent this year.
Tupper also echoed Police Department Chief Glenn Moshier’s calls earlier in the evening for a new radio system.
“I would take an educated guess that 50 percent of the time when we transmit over the radio you can’t understand what the other person is saying,” Tupper said.
“Our radio system stinks, it really does.” He said that because of the poor quality of transmission, the city has required that some buildings have repeater systems, often at significant cost to the developer, such as the $50,000 Seaport Village Healthcare was forced to spend.
A repeater receives a radio signal and retransmits it.
“With a new [radio] system they wouldn’t have to require buildings to put them in,” Tupper said.
“There are some significant safety-type of issues that we have to look at, priority issues,” Hamilton said. “We have to look at these issues now.”