Bucksport receives grant to hire new firefighters

BUCKSPORT — For the past several years, the Bucksport Fire Department has faced a rising call volume that is wearing down its four full-time firefighters.

“Two years ago, anything above 85 to 90 calls a month was pretty much unheard of,” said Fire Chief Craig Bowden, whose department received nearly 100 calls in June this year. “Three times in the past year we’ve been over 90.”

The large call volumes mean full-time firefighters frequently have to work as many as 30 hours of overtime a week. But help is on the way.

Last Friday, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King announced that the Bucksport Fire Department would receive $244,069 in grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The grant money will go toward hiring two new full-time firefighters for three years, which should help ease the load for the overworked department.

“To be able to add 50 percent to your full-time staff is going to be a benefit not just to the employees but to the community that we serve,” Bowden said.

But there’s a catch: the grant money will only cover 75 percent of each firefighter’s salary and benefit package for the first two years, then 35 percent for the third year. The town will have to pay the rest of the firefighters’ salary and benefit package the first three years. If the town wants to keep the firefighters on staff after three years, it will have to pay their entire salary and benefits.

Bowden said the Fire Department and the town still have to come up with ways to fund those positions in the long run without adding a heavy burden to taxpayers.

One possibility is to start doing ambulance transfers, where crews ferry patients between medical facilities for a fee. The department used to do ambulance transfers, but stopped due to the heavy emergency call volume.

If the department were to start doing transfers again, it would have to figure out how to balance those runs with its emergency work.

“The concept of getting the grant is to stabilize us with the amount of calls we’re taking,” Bowden said. For now, the grant also should give the department and the town some breathing room to come up with a plan for a long-term revenue stream.

According to the grant requirements, the department now has 180 days to negotiate contracts and hire the firefighters, who will likely also be certified paramedics.

“We’re hoping to be able to change the structure of how we respond,” Bowden said.

This FEMA grant isn’t the only one on Bowden’s mind lately. The department still has $100,000 left from a grant that was awarded last September for installing smoke detectors in homes throughout Bucksport and Verona Island.

“The cost of the initial purchase of the smoke detectors was about 30 to 40 percent less than what we had expected,” said Bowden, who explained that the department will still likely need another $30,000 to $40,000 to complete the project.

The department can’t use those leftover funds to pay new firefighters, unfortunately. But the chief hopes they can use it to install new numbers for Bucksport houses.

Bowden estimated that 30 to 40 percent of local houses either aren’t properly numbered, or have numbers that can’t be seen at night, or have numbers that are hidden by shrubs or bushes.

“Having a standard system in place would be beneficial,” he said.

Bowden said he also plans to ask FEMA for an extension on the smoke detector grant. The original plan was for the installation to be completed by September, but due to bad winter weather and the high call volume, the chief estimates the department will need another three months.

“Our biggest issue overall is finding people who are home,” said Bowden, whose firefighters can’t install smoke detectors without the residents’ permission.

“We’ve visited the same houses four or five times and left door hanger cards, but if we don’t get a call to set up an appointment we have to send a crew back.”

Bowden said that the town is about 50 percent done with the installation process. He said Verona Island and everything within two miles of downtown Bucksport are in great shape, and the department is now working to install detectors in more rural areas of the town.

“I think we would be able to finish it this fall,” Bowden said. “But FEMA doesn’t like departments asking for two extensions, so we requested a six-month extension, which should more than take care of it.”

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.