Osborn is working to determine what to do about its firefighting coverage, as its department has been without a chief since May and only has two official members on the roster right now. PHOTO BY STEVE FULLER

Short on personnel, Osborn eyes town’s firefighting future

OSBORN — Among the things this town has to offer are Spec Pond, scenic views of the surrounding area from the top of Moose Hill and lots of forest.

It may, one day, also be home to towering wind turbines.

One thing it does not have at the moment, however, is a fire chief. The post was left vacant when Fire Chief Shelly Cressler, who also served as town clerk and tax collector, resigned all her posts back in May after she was appointed to the job last July.

Nor, for that matter, does the town have much of a roster for its fire department: at the moment, the official membership stands at two.

The lack of a fire chief means the department is currently on “disbanded” status with the Hancock County Regional Communications Center, town officials said at a special town meeting held July 5. The meeting’s aim was to address the situation with the Fire Department.

“We can’t operate without a fire chief,” said Selectman Ray Slaybaugh. “We can’t continue in the state we’re in right now. The town has to make a decision.”

During the 90-minute meeting, the approximately 20 residents in attendance saw two choices before them: find someone to serve as fire chief (and by doing so, retain local control) or contract with the privately run Aurora Volunteer Fire Department (which has more members and already provides coverage for neighboring Great Pond and Amherst).

Each option’s strength was seen as the other’s downside. If the town hires a new fire chief, that does not address the larger issue of having enough volunteers who can respond when a call comes in. Conversely, residents wondered what would happen to Osborn’s fire station and equipment if they went with Aurora and what say, if any, town residents would then have on Fire Department matters.

There also was a question of how much it would cost in order to have fire protection services from the Aurora department. That uncertainty led them to punt on answering the question that night, and instead ask selectmen to come back with more information at their next monthly meeting on Wednesday, July 19.

The shortage of volunteers for the Fire Department is neither new nor unique to the town. In 2011, the Osborn department had about seven volunteers, including the father-daughter duo of Fire Chief Allan Shorey and EMT Chief Crystal Shorey. Crystal Shorey succeeded her father as fire chief for a time after he died in 2014.

The two official members of the Osborn department today are Selectman Paul Caggiano and his wife, Millie. Officials said the town’s charter prohibits someone from serving as both fire chief and a selectman, calling it a conflict of interest.

Nearby departments are also said to be experiencing low numbers, according to those at the July 5 meeting: four volunteers on the roster in Waltham and only two in Eastbrook. Residents noted that even when there are volunteers, they are not all necessarily trained to fill all the roles of a firefighter (such as entering a burning building).

Moderator Steve Jordan, a selectman in Waltham, was asked how his town is dealing with the situation.

“We’re muddling through,” he said. Referring to the fact many volunteer firefighters in small towns have day jobs in other communities, he added, “We hope if we have fires we have them on the weekend or at night.”

Aside from the unanswered question of how much it might cost — one resident said those in attendance were “in possession of far too few facts” to make a decision — residents said joining with Aurora could be a good idea.

Tim Varney compared fire protection to schools, in that Osborn does not have its own school due to low population but instead sends its children to the Airline Community School in Aurora. Amherst and Great Pond do the same thing, and with the four towns combined the school reports on its website a total enrollment of 34 students.

Varney said it seemed sensible the four towns could share a fire department as well as a school.

Jordan said there has been discussion of regional fire departments in corners of Hancock County, including on the Schoodic Peninsula, but said “personality issues” and concerns about firefighters from one town following a chief from another town have arisen.

Many at the July 5 meeting did note, however, how important mutual aid arrangements — one town sending its firefighters to another community to pitch in, or another community sending its crews to that town — have become in recent years.

The local statistics back up that argument. Between July 2016 and June 2017, the Osborn Fire Department had 27 calls. Of those, two-thirds were mutual aid calls. The only structure fire the department was called to in those 12 months was one of the 18 mutual aid calls.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.

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