Volunteers Needed: Part One 

Communities ask a lot of their volunteer fire departments. These firefighters are expected to do a very dangerous and important job, in addition to what they do for full-time work.But as the volunteer numbers dwindle, the amount of need hasn’t changed. Even a small town can have a big fire.”A fire is a fire. A fire in New York City is like a fire in Carmel, Maine,” said Carmel Fire and Rescue Chief Michael Azevedo.Most of these small, rural towns in our area like Carmel have volunteer fire departments. The hope is when flames erupt, there are enough volunteers to fight them.Azevedo said, “I need 20 people that are in shape, trained, have certificates that say that, and can do the job. The problem in a volunteer town is I don’t have 20 people on any given day, even when they’re all here.”Staffing is not just a problem in Carmel. Dover-Foxcroft’s Fire Chief Joe Guyotte is Maine’s representative on the National Volunteer Fire Council. He says the problem spans across the state and across the country.”The number of volunteer firefighters in the last ten years has dwindled 50%, so that’s a lot,” said Guyotte.The consequences are scary.”If your house burns down, they’re going to tone all these places, somebody is going to show up eventually, there’s no guarantee how long. And that’s what people have to realize, as less people volunteer, as costs go up, people are going to realize there’s no guarantee anybody’s going to show up,” said Azevedo.The reality is, during the day, most of these fire departments are close to empty.”Everybody works and they work out of town, but when the tone goes off, even though as much as they want to come, they’re unable to come,” said Guyotte.As important as their job as a firefighter is, it’s not the job that pays the bills. That’s one reason why firefighters think there are fewer volunteers. Everyone is just trying to make ends meet.Azevedo said, “When mom went to work, now dad, when dad’s home, is watching the kids, or they’re both working two jobs to even survive. And so there’s nothing left to do this.””It’s the lifestyle. Everybody is busy,” said Guyotte.Because so many departments are struggling to find volunteers, they’ve joined together.”It used to be one town went by themselves and if you called in another town, oh my God, you’re in serious trouble. And now because of staffing, because of training, because of equipment costs, most of our towns, over 50% of Penobscot County towns, have an automatic aid agreement that says if we’ve got a reported fire with flames, they’re bringing one, two, three towns,” explained Azevedo.The agreement is a fire department will send their own crews at their own expense to help with a fire in another town, with the understanding the other town would do the same for them. “If 38 miles away the tone goes off and says Greenville Fire needs your tanker and a ladder truck, we don’t hesitate. We send them,” said Guyotte. It works, but sometimes crews are still battling staffing problems before they can battle the flames.Azevedo said, “We can very easily go to 10 towns and only get 20 people in order to put the fire out.”More money would help solve some of these problems. But these small towns can’t afford to pay their firefighters, so they continue to seek volunteers.