NG Fire & Rescue evolves in the face of challenges

|Penny Hilton|

NGFR at a house fire.
Photo from NGFR Facebook page

The more It’s been a tough year – a tough several years – heck, a tough decade or two for New Gloucester Fire and Rescue (NGFR). Systemic problems have been shared by fire/rescue departments nationwide. Firefighting has become more and more complicated due to changes in materials, hazards, technologies and federal requirements. At the same time, the hometown-centric culture that made volunteer fire departments viable has all but disappeared. Fire chiefs across the country have been sounding that alarm for years.

The more divisive and disruptive problems have been New Gloucester’s own. A high-profile conflict with a fire chief and his town-employed wife challenged loyalties in town already strained by a previous town employee suit against the town and growing distrust between town officials and voters. The issue of fire and rescue stipends/pay dragged out for more than a year before town meeting vote, and nearly another year before implementation. A chief was hired, and fired. A deputy chief was suspended and resigned. NGFR members donned the black stripes and coalesced in “the sea of blue” at one funeral after another this year, three in six months. The town approved hiring per diem EMT’s from out-of-town, as well as locals, to fill out an emptying roster, which had a significant impact on taxes. Voters turned down a proposed revision of the ordinance regarding Fire and Safety operations and policies, and then the town hired a new deputy chief from Lewiston who has professional training and city experience but does not meet the long-standing requirements of living within 15 minutes of the New Gloucester Village Center, and of having four years’ experience with New Gloucester Fire and Rescue. Rules and procedures changed. Most recently, several seasoned volunteers quit. 

The New Chiefs

New Gloucester Fire Chief Toby Martin understands it will take a lot of work, support and cooperation to get the department through this complex transition.

Martin, a New Gloucester resident, comes to firefighting through the old-time model that is now disappearing. His grandfather was a captain in the Topsham fire department, and Martin became a junior firefighter in Brunswick at the age of 14. He went to college for six months, when he was hired as a full-time firefighter in Brunswick. In Brunswick he added EMT to his certification and went to work with Lifeflight for a while. From 2005 to 2015 Toby worked as a firefighter in Bath, while also teaching EMT at Maine Vocational Region 10 in Brunswick. He also holds a Masters in Education. His next ventures were as EMS director, transitioning the programs from volunteer to per diem staffing, in Turner and later in Wiscasset. From 2013-2015 he also volunteered with the NGFR under Chief Gary Sacco. When the Wiscasset job ended, he expected to retire, but was contacted by NG EMS Chief Mary Rich when the NGFR Chief position became vacant last year, and he was hired by NG Town Manager Carrie Castonguay.

“It’s the ultimate dream of every firefighter to be able to do what you love to do, in the community you reside in,” says Martin.

Deputy Chief Craig Bouchard, who grew up in Lisbon, decided to become a fireman when, at 8 years old, he watched firefighters from more than 20 Maine towns fight the Worumbo Mill Fire. He started volunteering at the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Department when he was 17, earned a fire science degree from Southern Maine Technical College, and was hired by the Auburn Fire Department, where he still serves as lieutenant. He pursued additional education with certification courses in management and officer and chief duties through the National Fire Academy, and became certified in the international ProBoard system through an extension program with Texas A & M University. As deputy chief, Craig fills one per-diem shift per week, attends meetings, and works on administrative projects toward Chief Martin’s goal of creating a “blended” company of cross-trained firefighters and EMT’s, professional and volunteer. While Bouchard acknowledges ruefully that “a lot of people don’t like me now,” Martin says Bouchard has the skills and experience he will need in a partnership to bring New Gloucester Fire and Rescue through.

Staffing – Now, Near, and Long-term

Current staffing for the NGFD is:  the chief, the deputy chief on-call, and two per diems per day; and two per diems overnight, ensuring 24-hour coverage. The department also hosts two live-in students from the fire-fighting program at Southern Maine Community College, but Martin cautions they are there to learn but not to offset staffing. There are also four junior firefighters (16-18 years old) who are paired with mentors. They cannot handle traffic or interior duty, but, says Martin,” There’s lots they can do.”

As for the traditional “volunteer firefighters” who are now paid hourly, this is the group where the numbers are dwindling.

Near term, the chiefs are working on recruitment and recently sent out a flyer to all New Gloucester residents pitching volunteering.  “We need people to control traffic and lots of other things,” says Martin. “Want to learn to drive a fire truck?”

Long term, what’s needed is a revived program of bringing them in young and having them grow up in the department. Both Martin and Bouchard say they intend to “do a lot of listening.” All department personnel, for example, are invited to participate in PIAs, or Post Incident Analysis meetings, where decisions will be reviewed and ideas welcomed for how to do better the next time. “We really want to be inclusive, and have officer buy-in,” says Martin.

With training now becoming standardized through the international ProBoard system, not expecting to live in town for life as in previous generations doesn’t have to dull interest in a long-term commitment in firefighting. Training is a significant time commitment for the volunteers – on average, 220 hours to be a firefighter – but it is now portable to other communities. On the other hand, it’s also expensive for the town, which pays for training and certification, and also for outfitting that runs around $3,000 per person. What’s really needed is a steady flow of volunteers moving in and up the ladder.

“Everyone wants to work the big fires, no one wants to do the downed tree.” New Gloucester doesn’t actually have a lot of structure fires, and that has been the case for decades, explains Martin. The majority of calls require rescue services of one kind or another. But when a ranch-style home is burning, it takes 14 personnel to perform all the functions needed. Before the per diems, the average was 3.5 responders to a call. They currently work the “2 in, 2 out” rule – and bring in mutual aide.

“Before the per diems, our out-the-door time for a night incident could be as long as 14-16 minute, “Martin says. “The average should be 3 minutes.”

Currently, because of the low number of responders, even with the per diems, taking a second call when a crew is still out is unlikely. “You have to have at least two EMTs on a call – someone has to drive!” Right now, the rule is “one call at a time.”

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