TRENTON — Volunteer fire departments are the backbone of small communities, responding first when an emergency occurs, no matter the time of day.
And yet, agencies, including those Downeast, are sharing the same message: calls for help are up and recruitment of volunteers is down, raising the question, what is the future of volunteer departments?
For Steve Corson, fire chief for the Trenton Volunteer Fire Department, tradition is at the heart of the job.
“It’s never been about the money,” he told The American about the volunteer position, which includes responding to calls of fires and motor vehicle accidents at all hours of the day — and night.
And “you never know” when the call is going to come in.
“It could be 2 a.m. or 2 p.m.,” Corson said. It could also be during anniversaries, birthdays and holidays.
Regardless, crews, such as the Trenton department, show up for the community.
“We’re the first line of defense,” Corson said.
Outside of emergency calls, Corson said the department meets about four times a month for a business meeting, two trainings and a work detail day to repair and maintain equipment. The department will also set aside time for public relations events on some weekends, such as the Trenton team’s pancake breakfasts, which are currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the tradition of volunteer firefighting, the rallying of neighbors to protect their own (and in Trenton’s case, the millions of visitors traveling along Route 3 to Acadia National Park), is still at the heart of the job, Corson notes that the nature of the work may mean transitioning to full-time, paid positions.
So, what is contributing to the low membership totals?
“The commitment is considerable,” Corson said. Keeping up with required trainings and completing six months with a fire academy all while juggling families and full-time jobs can be a lot for a volunteer crew.
He also mused that perhaps generational differences are contributing to low memberships, noting he has heard other volunteer agencies and groups, such as the Shriners and veterans organizations, are also experiencing lower participation.
Mutual aid agreements with surrounding towns help ensure enough firefighters are available to respond to any given emergency.
Following a structure fire that destroyed a home in Hancock Sept. 25, the Hancock Volunteer Fire Department posted on its Facebook page, “Thank you to all our mutual aid partners. We have to keep reaching out further as volunteer numbers aren’t what they were even five years ago.”
The Trenton department is also part of a mutual aid agreement with Ellsworth, Lamoine and Hancock.
Recently, the Trenton department has made a “baby step” toward becoming a department with paid, full-time positions with the development of a shared firefighter position with Hancock County at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport.
The Trenton Select Board unanimously approved on July 13 a memorandum of understanding with the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport for a full-time firefighter, hired as an employee of the town, to be contracted to work 20 hours per week at the airport and 20 hours with the town’s fire department.
At Town Meeting, Trenton voters approved funding the town’s share of the position at $25,000. The total cost for the position is $50,000.
Selectman John Bennett said the agreement was a step that reflected the growth of the town’s fire department and its potential to expand.
“I think it’s a really good deal,” he said.
Bennett’s remarks reflect what Corson said helps volunteer departments succeed: public support.
“I have the privilege of having a very supportive select board and residents of the town,” Corson shared.
The support is critical in securing the needed equipment and funding, he said.
An official hire for the shared position has not been announced yet, but Corson said “it’s getting closer by the minute” with hopes to have the position filled in October.
As the roster for the Trenton Volunteer Fire Department has decreased, Corson said the department’s call volume has tripled since the late 1990s.
Annually, his department responds to about 110 to 115 calls. Even with an “unusually quiet” August, the unit’s call log stands at 87 so far for this year.
“It’s on the high side even with a quiet August,” Corson said.
A solid response to those calls is when 10 to 14 members of the department are available to show up, he added.
But, “there are times when you get one or two,” he said.
Despite lower numbers, Corson shared some optimistic news.
“We’ve had an influx of some young members,” he reported. He said it’s been beneficial for the department to have those younger members added to its 20-person roster and veteran firefighters enjoy being around new recruits who are energetic and excited to be a part of the crew.