CASTINE — Firefighting in Downeast Maine isn’t what it used to be. Now that many adults in the area work in larger cities such as Ellsworth or Bangor, it’s harder for small rural fire departments to find volunteers to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice.
Due to Maine’s aging population, it’s also more difficult for small departments to find young volunteers to take up the physically demanding tasks of the trade.
The Castine Fire Rescue Department, however, has no such problems. Thanks to the students of Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), the department is almost always fully staffed with a troop of young men and women who are ready, willing and able to respond to the town’s emergencies.
“There are not many departments that field a dozen 20-year-olds,” said Assistant Chief Jack Spratt, an MMA graduate and former student firefighter himself. “It’s a workforce.”
Once students sign up for the department, the station quickly becomes a second home.
“It’s really a home away from the school,” said Kyle Fallon, a 21-year-old marine systems engineering student from South Berwick, who is also a lieutenant at the Fire Department.
“I’ll come down here, do homework, hang out with the other firefighters,” he said. “And if the Castine Fire Rescue Department gets a call, we’ll put a truck on the road in a minute just because of students being down here.”
Firefighting is in Fallon’s blood. His father was also a student at MMA and the first student officer on the Fire Department. Both father and son served under Fire Chief Randy Stearns.
“These gentlemen are very well trained and well-qualified,” Stearns said, specifically about his two student officers, Fallon and Corey McCoy. As such, they frequently are in charge of the department’s response to an emergency.
“I have confidence that these gentlemen can handle a scene or a situation and I could be in Bucksport, Bangor or somewhere else,” Stearns said. “Their skills of leadership have been well-demonstrated over the years. That’s why they’re in that position.”
Of course, training for emergencies and staying up late on a call can eat into a student’s schedule, but Fallon said most of the professors at MMA are very understanding.
“I’m thankful to have professors who allow me to come down and make up any work I may have missed,” said the EMT, who sometimes gets called out of class to respond to a medical call.
As a member of the academy’s regiment of midshipmen, Fallon is also supposed to show up for muster at 7 a.m. every day. Luckily, he and his fellow firefighters get an exception after a late call.
“If we’re out past midnight we can send an email to our company commander and it’s excused,” said the senior. “It’s a great perk because the last thing you want to do is be staying at a car accident at 1 a.m. and be thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get up in six hours.’”
The Fire Department is also an authorized work study site, where students can pay off some of their tuition as they work there.
One of the challenges the senior staff face is making sure the volunteers focus on their studies first.
“We have to make sure we don’t involve the students to the point where their studies suffer,” Spratt said. “We’re happy to have them, but at the end of the day they’re here to get a college education.”
For some students though, the demands of firefighting actually enhance their studies.
“If I wasn’t doing this, school would just be so much more miserable,” said McCoy, a 22-year-old marine engineering operations student from Pittsburgh, who is also an officer at the Fire Department.
“You always are up to 11 or midnight doing homework, but to be down here is too much fun.”
The department also allows student firefighters to connect with the town in a way that many other students don’t.
“I have a friend who’s not in the Fire Department and he’ll see me waving to people and he’ll ask, ‘How do you know all those people?’” Fallon said.
“And I’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s a firefighter, he’s friends with this guy and so on.’ The students that don’t leave campus and don’t talk with the people in town are missing out.”
“There are kids that will go home every weekend, and they’ll say this place is so boring.” McCoy added. “I’ll ask, ‘What are you involved in?’ and they’ll say, ‘Just school.’ If you’re down here on the Fire Department there’s stuff to do every weekend.”
By volunteering with the Fire Department, students also connect with a widespread network of MMA alumni.
“I’ve got two of our former firefighters who work for me at sea now,” Spratt said. “You’re able to vouch for them, like ‘Yeah, these guys have got super level heads, I’ve seen them deal with car accidents and emergency situations.’”
The MMA students play such an important role that their presence is sorely missed when they’re away during the summer.
“Boy do we miss them over the summer months,” said Stearns, who has lived in Castine for most of his life. “They’re townies. That’s how I look at it.”