Lincoln County fire departments will host their first-ever county-wide open house Wednesday, May 18 in what fire officials call a sign of the recruitment issues throughout the volunteer fire service.
“This is the first time anything this widespread has ever been done,” said Neil Kimball, president of the Lincoln County Fire Chiefs Association.
The effort speaks to “how difficult it is right now to get people to volunteer,” Kimball said. Across the county, “we’re seeing everybody having problems getting numbers.”
Kimball serves as an assistant fire chief in Bristol and sees the issue in his own department.
“We’re fortunate. We probably have more than most, but even we’re smaller than what we were just five years ago,” he said. “The average age of our department, I believe, is 53.”
Somerville Assistant Fire Chief Timothy Dostie chairs the Lincoln County Fire Chiefs Association Recruitment and Retention Committee.
“A lot of departments are facing fairly critical recruitment challenges,” Dostie said. “A lot of departments are, of course, getting older.” Dostie hopes to see the open house bring in interest and new members for all the departments.
Damariscotta Fire Chief John Roberts sits on the recruitment and retention committee with Dostie.
“I think every department in the county and statewide, even nationwide, is experiencing a problem with retention and recruitment, so (the open house) is one step we’ve taken toward trying to spread the word about the fact that the fire-protection services in Lincoln County are provided by volunteers and we need volunteers in order to keep that tradition alive,” Roberts said.
Roberts estimates that Damariscotta has about 15 percent fewer firefighters than it did 15 years ago.
“It seems like every time we bring in a new member, we have one member that is no longer active,” he said.
Nearly all fire departments in the county will open their doors from 6-8 p.m., Wednesday, May 18 in the effort to recruit volunteer firefighters.
Fire departments will distribute information about how to become a volunteer and what the work entails.
The materials cover the volunteer opportunities at departments. Departments need firefighters, but they also need volunteers for rescue operations, “scene support” functions like pump operations, traffic control, and truck operations; and “non-emergency” volunteers for administrative duties, community outreach, and other tasks. Some fire departments even offer “junior membership” for volunteers as young as 14.
Kimball encourages anyone who has ever considered volunteering to show up and ask what they can do. “There’s a job for everyone in the fire service, no matter who you are or what your background is,” he said.
Volunteer firefighters generally attend department trainings two to three times per month, as well as occasional trainings with fellow departments. New firefighters attend the Lincoln County Fire Academy, which provides more than 75 hours of classroom and hands-on training to prepare them for the work.
Potential firefighters will also receive a pamphlet with the title “Lincoln County Volunteer Firefighting: What to Expect – A Guide for New Firefighters and Their Families.”
“Volunteer firefighting goes beyond the average volunteer work,” according to the pamphlet. “It becomes a lifestyle, and one that many take great pride in. It is very common to have several generations of the same family fighting fires together and responding to emergencies.”
The pamphlet outlines the life of a volunteer firefighter and the impact of service on firefighters and their families. Firefighters must be ready to respond to emergencies at any time of day or night and perform “physically and mentally exhausting activities.”
The job has challenges, but it comes with rewards.
“The personal reward of the emotion of how it feels to help people – you can’t measure that with dollars and cents,” Kimball said. “That’s the biggest part of the job. The reward that way is incredible.”
From Somerville to Southport, Monhegan to Wiscasset, every fire department in the county will hold the open house with the exception of Boothbay Harbor.
Damariscotta is “working hard to promote the open house,” Roberts said. Firefighters will hand out the pamphlets, answer questions about the fire service, and give tours of the station to anyone who wants one.
Dostie hopes the handouts will better prepare potential volunteers.
“We get new members, but the problem is, they don’t stay long term,” he said. “We’re good at getting members to join, but we’re not good at preparing them for what they’re going to be doing.”
The Lincoln County Fire Chiefs Association is organizing the collaborative event, and will continue to brainstorm future recruitment and retention efforts.
“We’ve started a new website and talked about maybe putting a training film together on what it is to be a firefighter,” Kimball said.
Another idea involves asking local businesses to participate in an incentive plan that would give firefighters modest discounts.
The need for volunteers extends beyond the fire service too.
“I’d like to encourage everyone to find a way to give back to their community, whether it be in the fire service or in another civic organization,” Roberts said. “One of the things that makes our community a vibrant place is the number of community organizations we have, and without volunteering, our ability to operate will be threatened.”
But few – perhaps no – civic organizations would have the same impact as the fire service if their workforce were to transition from volunteer to “career” or full time.
“If there ever comes a time when we can’t fill the ranks of firefighters in Lincoln County with volunteers, the tax impact of providing that service with full-time departments would be enormous,” Roberts said.
For more information about the Lincoln County Fire Chiefs Association, go to lcfca.me.