| Debra Smith, NGX |
Between the decline in volunteerism and the increasing training and credentialing requirements, fire and rescue departments across the state face challenging personnel issues, described in several recent articles in the Portland Press Herald and elsewhere. The situation is most acute in Maine’s remote rural areas.
It would be easy to say that the recent loss of several of New Gloucester’s Fire and Rescue’s long-time members is part of this larger pattern. But according to current and former NGFR leaders, this is not the whole story, and it didn’t need to happen as it has.
The NGFR has a long and proud history of serving the town. Veterans describe “growing up in the department,” starting with helping out as youth. A strong culture of voluntarism and commitment to service has been at the center of the department for decades. “We were known as one of the best around,” says Lieutenant Tim Bartlett, a 45-year veteran. While this has evolved as more training and credentials were needed for EMTs and firefighters, and as individuals have come and gone over the years based on their life situations, a strong group of dedicated members has remained at the center. Volunteers were not compensated in the early years, then paid a small stipend per call and then recently began receiving hourly compensation. In the past year or so, seven core members, including several officers with over 100 years of collective experience, have left the NGFR. The factors leading to these departures are complex.
There have been a number of changes in NGFR leadership over the past few years. Late Chief Gary Sacco was highly regarded by fire and rescue personnel locally and beyond. He retired and then went on to lead the Oxford Fire and Rescue until his untimely death. Jim Ladewig came from Texas to take over the department, but resigned after being suspended and investigated, then reinstated by the former town manager Carrie Castonguay last November. Roger Levasseur, a 47-year member of the NGFR, was appointed acting chief and then suspended by the town manager. Levasseur and others lament the lack of support from town leaders, including the former town manager and select board, from not adequately funding equipment repair and replacement to treating department members with disregard.
Levasseur is known for asking tough questions, and believes that he was targeted for trying to support the safety of the department. In one instance, he questioned how fire trucks that were inspected by the town’s mechanic could have several mechanical issues a few weeks later as documented by certified emergency vehicle mechanics, and requested that the state police be called upon to conduct inspections. Following this request, he was put on suspension. He was offered a financial settlement not to return to the department, which he declined.
NGFR Chief Toby Martin became chief in February 2019, after many years as an EMT in Bath, and Brunswick, and brief stints as head of Turner Rescue, and of the Wiscasset Ambulance Service. He lives in New Gloucester and had been on the on-call roster. Chief Martin has made a number of changes since he took over, from hiring many per diems to turning offices into bedrooms and requiring scheduled personnel to sleep at the station, even if they lived close by. The sleepover requirement caused at least one person to leave, due to the impact on her work schedule at her other job. Prior to Martin becoming chief, 60% of personnel were cross trained, from ambulance drivers to paramedics, but several of those people have left.
In an interview with Lakes Region Weekly Reporter Jane Vaughn, Chief Martin defended the loss of long-time NGFR members as being due to fewer people entering the professional and low pay, not leadership issues. Lieutenant Brian Chipman left in September 2018. “I have no axe to grind with the chief,” says Chipman. “He’s doing what he thinks needs to happen, but there’s almost no back-up now. I don’t think he meant for that to happen, but he seems to have had wide latitude with little oversight.”
Chipman explained that he resigned “because I didn’t like what I saw, the way that they treated Roger Levasseur. I figured it might be me they didn’t like next week.” Levasseur, said Chipman, “was the fabric and the glue that held this department together.” Distressed by what was happening, 23-year veteran Scotty Doyle stepped down from his role as captain in October, and told the chief he needed some time to think about how he’d like to be involved. He explained in an interview with Vaughn that two weeks later, he received a letter from the town manager stating that she considered him to have resigned, and that he had demonstrated that he doesn’t have “dedication to the town.”
Board of Selectmen Chair Linda Chase says she doesn’t have knowledge of the details of these departures, which were handled by the town manager. The changes in hourly pay are “what they department asked for,” she explains. “Perhaps they didn’t understand the ramifications of these changes. Once you pay people hourly versus a stipend, federal labor regulations come into effect and with that, there are a lot of changes that impact the ways that people have operated in the past… For example, the officers used to get together to review personnel and interns’ performance. They can’t do that anymore as they are not responsible for supervision. That has to be done by the chief.”
Chase said that shortly after Martin started as chief, a consultant was hired to facilitate conversations about how members would like to see changes made, and to make a confidential report to the town manager. The perspective of members interviewed was entirely different in regard to the consultant’s role. “It seemed like the chief couldn’t talk with us directly”…. “There was no conversation about how we would like to see things”… “The chief and the town manager made decisions and announced them.”
Chase believes that moving to a more professional structure with paid personnel is inevitable, but the changes so far have already had a dramatic impact on the budget. The NGFR budget for the 2020 fiscal year increased by approximately 70%, from $379,019 to $643,1123, contributing to an over 20% jump in the local share of property taxes.
The idea of cross-training everyone may seem appealing as a solution, says EMS Chief Mary Rich. But, she explains, that while many members do both, “the fire and rescue sides are very different. 90% of calls are for rescue, which takes two people per call.” The credentialing requirements for EMTs are steep, and many of them have demanding day jobs in the medical field. Firefighters on call don’t have a set schedule and can train on the job.
With the decline in numbers of NGFR personnel, current and former members are concerned about public safety. EMS Chief Rich assures residents that “if you call 911 for EMS, two highly qualified and caring people will come and take care for your loved one.” But if there’s a second call while they’re out? The NGFR no longer has on-call EMTs.
Chief Martin explained in an October NGXchange interview with Penny Hilton, 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.” For structure fires, “When a ranch-style home is burning, it takes 14 personnel to perform all the functions needed.” They currently work the “2 in, 2 out” rule – and bring in mutual aid from surrounding communities.
But as was highlighted in a Portland Press Herald article about a structure fire in New Gloucester this fall for which mutual aid was requested, two firefighters with one truck and two on call EMTs responded to a 2 a.m. mobile home fire. Poland Fire Chief Tim Printup said that if the dwelling had been larger or occupied, they wouldn’t have been able to handle it.
So, what is the solution? Both Rich and Chipman note that with about 600 calls per year, New Gloucester doesn’t have enough call volume to justify a full-time department. Chipman also expresses concerns about the growing impact on taxes for New Gloucester residents if this approach continues. Taxes have jumped to cover the costs of hourly pay and 24/7 per diem coverage, and still capacity is falling short.
Mutual aid isn’t enough, and it’s supposed to complement, not replace the local fire and rescue force. “We need on-call people, “says Rich. “Scott and Roger were on every call.” Their long experience and deep knowledge can’t be replaced. Lieutenant Tim Bartlett says that “the core of the department has been destroyed. It would be a lot easier to keep good people than to recruit replacements.” Several people believe that former NGFR members would return, if there were changes in leadership and communication. Some other towns have developed a blended approach that incorporates both the long-time community on-call force with per diems and staff. For New Gloucester Fire and Rescue, looking forward may require also looking back.
“This didn’t have to happen this way.”