Serious Situation for Municipal Fire Services

(from Maine Townsman, October 2005)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Early in the morning of September 26, a house caught fire in the small York County town of Acton.

From the time the call came in at 1:43 a.m., it took 18 minutes for the first truck to arrive. Eventually, a dozen trucks and 35 firefighters from three departments were involved. Although the house was near a lake, the road was too narrrow for a truck and a tanker shuttle was set up to bring water from Balch Lake over a mile away. All told, 12,000 gallons of water were poured on the fire.

All of this effort was to no avail. The family of four got out, but the brand new house was a total loss. All that remains is the black skeletal frame and melted vinyl siding hanging like drapes on one side.

The house probably would have been saved if it was protected by a residential sprinkler system, according to Acton Fire Chief Harold Smith. Only a handful of communities have made installation of sprinklers a requirement in new homes and Acton is not among them.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Chief Smith. “Statistically and from my experience, if this had been sprinkled the fire most likely would have been extinguished when the first truck arrived or nearly so.”

Instead, Acton, like the vast majority of communities in Maine, continues to rely on a dwindling corps of overworked volunteers to put out fires. The increasingly onerous commitments of volunteerism are driving people away at a time when citizenry expectations of safety are rising and when more housing development is located in remoter places. The situation seems to be worsening.

“In its present configuration, fire service is stretched to the limit, especially if you’re relying on all volunteers,” said Steve Willis, head of Fire Training and Education at Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland. “For communities that haven’t taken proactive steps, the situation is definitely very serious.”

The goal for reaching a fire before it is too late is six minutes, a guideline established by the National Fire Protection Association. Nationwide, the on-time performance of fire departments is bad and getting worse, especially for volunteer departments, according to a recent survey by the Boston Globe. Only 35 percent of departments nationwide reached fires within six minutes, according to the Globe survey of 3.3 million building fires going back to 1985. Full-time career departments reached fires on time 57.7 percent of the time while volunteer departments reached fires on time 14.3 percent of the time. For both kinds of departments, on-time performance has steadily worsened since 1986. During the 15-year survey period, more than 4,000 people died in fires in which the firefighters took more than six minutes to respond.

On-time performance is more critical than ever because modern buildings burn hotter and with more noxious gases, according to the Globe.

In the 1970s, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that (at that time) people had about 17 minutes to escape before being overcome by heat and smoke. Today, the estimate is three minutes. The Globe blames the worsening on-time performance to budget cutbacks, though it also seems reasonable that the spread of housing into rural areas might also be a factor. (The six-minute standard is a guideline, not law, based on the NFPA’s estimation that a 911 call takes a minute to field, and firefighters take another minute to gear up and four to arrive at a fire. The NFPA does not seek perfection; the association recommends meeting that standard in 90 percent of calls.)

IN THE OLD DAYS

It was not until the great forest fire of 1947, which burned 205,000 acres, that rural communities in Maine were shocked into organizing formal departments. Even with the formation of departments, the acquisition of trucks, and the inception of training, firefighting was still pretty informal right up through the 1970s. Back then, new volunteers were given boots, a heavy overcoat, a helmet and told to show up at the next fire to handle a support role. Training was done on the job. Though air packs were just beginning to be available, most firefighters entered burning buildings unprotected from smoke inhalation.

“The person who ate the most smoke was promoted quicker,” explained Jack Woods, Caribou’s fire chief. “If you stayed in and toughed it out, you got promoted quicker.”

Woods, 60, described fire departments back then as “good old boy clubs” not unlike Kiwanis, where members ate meals and played cards. Caribou is a combination department with full-timers and on-call firefighters paid for each fire they work.

Two events stand out in the recent history of fire service in Maine. In 1987, the firefighter safety law passed that forced improvements in training and protective gear. Also, the advent of prevention and early detection efforts – the spread of smoke alarms, the toughening of building codes, and the expansion of education efforts – reduced the number of fire deaths from 50-60 per year to 15-25 per year.

INCREASED DEMANDS FOR, AND ON, VOLUNTEERS

Volunteers have historically manned the hoses and driven the trucks at all but the largest departments. They still account for 90 percent of the 9,800 trained firefighters in Maine, a labor force that saves Maine an estimated $50 million a year, according to Maine Fire Protection Services.

But the numbers are dropping, down nearly 1,000 from just four years ago.

A decade ago, most “call” departments had waiting lists. Nowadays, departments have vacancies in their call departments. Skowhegan has eight vacancies in its on-call force of 30 firefighters. Gorham is down to a dozen or fewer volunteers, whereas 15 years ago, there were 30 volunteers and a waiting list.

“I don’t know of any department that isn’t struggling,” said Steve Willis. “No question, every department has lost many members, maybe 20 percent or more.”

It’s understandable given the demands on volunteers.

New recruits must complete 112 hours of unpaid training just to meet safety requirements established by OSHA and Maine Department of Labor. And most departments won’t allow new recruits on a fire scene until they’ve completed 180 hours of training. Due to liability and workplace safety laws, the training never stops. Caribou, for example, holds weekly training sessions for full-time firefighters and on-call firefighters. Caribou, like many other departments, cross-trains firefighters to also serve as ambulance paramedics. Annual recertification is required for a slew of critical skills.

“If you join, you belong to me Tuesday night,” said Woods. Woods said he won’t accept the liability of allowing a firefighter to perform any task for which he has not been properly trained.

“It used to be very seldom we’d get visited by the Department of Labor or OSHA. Now they come twice a year. They look at my training records, roll calls to see who came in. They’re looking at equipment to see if it’s checked and maintained. They’re usually here a whole day.”

Woods said the training requirements are a significant obstacle to recruitment efforts even for paid, on-call firefighters.

“The pay isn’t the issue, it’s the committment,” said Woods.

Mandatory training is only half of a firefighter’s commitment. It takes more and more time to respond to calls for service – not just to fires but to medical emergencies, false alarms, bats in the attic, strange smells.

In the 21 years that Bob Lefebvre has been fire chief in Gorham, calls to the fire department have increased from 150 a year to 1,200-1,400 a year. Ambulance calls have increased from 324 a year to 2,000.

If you’re a volunteer with a day-job that means it’s a rare night that you won’t be awakened by a call for service. “A lot listen to see what the call is and then chose to go or not. I don’t blame them,” said Chief Lefebvre. Even eager young recruits can burn out in 18 months, he said. “They come to me and say ‘I can’t do it, it’s too much commitment.’”

The only bright spot is that improvements in training and equipment have boosted overall competence to new levels. Willis says a dozen firefighters today can be far more effective than a force of 30 firefighters 20 years ago.

“More and more times, there are not enough people at the scene to provide the services people expect,” said Willis. “Firefighters are forced to make many poor choices . . . Instead of taking care of tasks simultaneously – attack, ventilate, search and rescue, they may have to do them sequentially. Lack of staffing has an effect.”

In such a climate, creative thinking is a necessity. Mutual aid agreements and automatic aid agreements – in which neighboring departments promise to respond to each other’s fires – are commonplace. Some short-staffed departments now have full-time university students living at fire stations. In exchange for free room, they participate in training and go out on calls. Scarborough, Gorham, Windham, Standish, Alfred, and Saco now have live-in students to augment their forces. “Tremendous training and community benefits,” said Willis. With grant money, Acton has purchased a dozen pieces of exercise equipment and is converting an old fire station into a fitness center. The fitness center should help keep older firefighters in fighting shape and help recruit new members, said Chief Smith.

Collaborative purchases with other departments and other forms of regionalization are also growing.

Gorham has probably done more with regionalization than any department. At three stations, its trucks share space with trucks from neighboring communities of Scarborough, Standish and Windham. It shares the cost of a mechanic with Windham and it hopes to save $200,000 a year by shutting down its own dispatch center and shifting to dispatch services provided by Cumberland County. The shift was subject to a voter override referendum, which failed due to poor turnout. Gorham is now pursuing construction of a vehicle maintenance garage and establishment of an automotive training program at Southern Maine Correctional Institute.

Many once all-volunteer departments have hired a few full-time people to ensure at least minimal staffing levels. Those communities include Herman, Hampden, Mount Desert Island, Waterboro, Durham, Freeport, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Scarborough, and Gorham. “By necessity, they’ve had to change,” said Willis.

“I probably should retire, but can’t because of the cost,” said Chief Woods in Caribou, 60. He said there’s “something wrong” if someone who’s dedicated 30 years of his life can’t get bridge insurance.

RESIDENTIAL SPRINKLERS

All the regionalization and volunteer recruitment efforts probably won’t have the impact on service that residential sprinklers would have. Scottsdale, Arizona (population 223,000) is Exhibit A in any discussion of residential sprinkler ordinances. Since that community began requiring sprinklers in new homes in 1989, more than half the single family homes (53 percent) are now protected. A study examining 15 years of data, found:

— The average fire loss was $3,534 in sprinkled homes and $45,019 in non-sprinkled homes

— Annual fire deaths reduced by half with an estimated 13 lives saved.

— The average amount of water sprayed during a fire was just 209 gallons in a sprinkled home and 3,290 gallons in a non-sprinkled home.

“The use of residential sprinklers in Scottsdale is no longer an experiment! It is a proven method that has been used to dramatically improve the level of fire protection in the community,” according to a report by the Scottsdale Rural/Metro Fire Department.

In Maine, the towns pushing the introduction of sprinklers tend to be small, fast-growing towns whose fire departments are most stretched by development in the rural areas. “What a lot of towns are saying is ‘we don’t want taxes to increase and be forced to expand the fire department,’” said Eric Ellis, in charge of sprinkler regulation in Maine.

As of two years ago, the following towns had required residential sprinklers in new homes: Gorham, Standish, Raymond, Falmouth, Westbrook, North Yarmouth, Scarborough, Yarmouth, South Portland and some areas of Bath, according to Maine Fire Marshal’s office. Some of the new ordinances applied to all new homes while others applied only to subdivisions of a certain size. Some ordinances give builders the option of sprinkling, constructing a fire pond or extending water lines and hydrants. The latter options cost tens of thousands of dollars and provide far less protection, said Ellis. “In terms of fire safety a hydrant or a fire pond contributes almost nothing compared to a sprinkler,” he said.

Modern sprinkler systems can be installed for as little as $3,000 to $5,000 in new homes, he said.

“We see the trend toward residential sprinklers dramatically expanding,” said Ellis.

Residential sprinklers have an image problem, however. Many people wrongly believe they are activated whenever a smoke alarm is activated (they are activated by heat, not odors or smoke.) And many people believe that the entire system lets loose with water, soaking the entire house even when the fire is confined to a small area. Wrong again. Each sprinkler head responds according to its own individual heat sensor.

Acton Fire Chief Smith said he favors a mandatory sprinkler installation though he says it will take an education campaign.

“Typical in New England, change is difficult,” said Chief Smith.

“Those of us in the business know the answer, but sometimes it’s difficult to get the public on board.”

The Maine Association of Homebuilders and Remodelers is certain to oppose mandatory sprinklers. Roger Rossignol, an architect and a director of the association, said sprinkler installation will be far more costly for homes relying on slow recharge private wells because it will involve installation of a large holding tank, additional pumps and a back-up generator. The cost could easily be in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, which he said will be prohibitively expensive for first-time homebuyers.

Furthermore, Rossignol says mandating sprinklers flies in the face of the broad consensus that led to the state’s adoption last year of the International Building Code (which calls for sprinklers in multi-family but not single family homes) as the model code for Maine.

The sprinkler issue may come to a head in Maine during the next year. The National Fire Protection Association is calling for sprinkler installation in all new homes in the 2006 version of the NFPA’s life safety code that many states adopt as their own. State Fire Marshal John Dean said he favors adoption of the sprinkler requirement, which would then become mandatory across the state. Dean said he expects the requirement will be “difficult and controversial.” Adoption does not require legislation but it does require a lengthy review through the Administrative Procedures Act.

“I’m in a no win situation,” said Dean. “If we don’t adopt it, people are going to say the fire marshal doesn’t care about people dying in fires because it’s part of the national code and we didn’t adopt it. If we do adopt it, people are going to say this is a terrible burden and government is interfering in private homes and water will be all over the place.”