Another Perspective on Maine Fire Services
(from Maine Townsman, March 2002)
by Rick Bronson, Fire Chief, Brewer

With great interest I have read your two-part article on fire services in Maine. I think further investigation into regionalizing fire services deserves much more attention. While many people may think the first reason to look at regional fire services is cost containment that may be only one of a group of good reasons.

In the first installment you quote Governor King as asking if every town needs an aerial ladder truck. Based on the cost of these trucks I understand the question.

In Brewer we purchased a new aerial ladder truck two years ago. The half million dollar price tag got lots of people's attention. However, looking into this more deeply than just enough to get sticker shock is required if we are going to make good alternative decisions.

The City of Brewer has supported looking at regional approaches in many areas. That includes fire services. Brewer has entered into an automatic mutual aid pact with the towns of Holden and Eddington that has now been in operation for 18 months. We are training together, our officers meet together regularly and we are dispatched simultaneously for working fires. That means the first fire truck to the alarm scene may not be labeled with the name of the town where the structure sits. In the not too distant future we think this system will expand to at least two more municipalities.

Based on both our instinct and some large national surveys, we know that people needing a fire truck or an ambulance largely don't care where it came from. It has now happened in our system, more than once, that the first truck on scene is from another town followed by one with the hometown logo on it. No one seems to care so long as the job gets done. And, under this automatic aid system the job is getting done more quickly than it was before.

Even in Brewer, the bigger municipality in our system, the name on the truck is a moot issue. Recently Brewer had a fire in an industrial facility. During that incident a second alarm was sounded in another part of the city. The fire truck that responded to that second alarm, coming out of Brewer's station, was from Eddington. No Brewer fire equipment ever went to that second call. That fact caused no issues.

Despite all the modern technology, firefighting remains a labor-intensive undertaking. The real issues in managing today's fire service mostly address personnel, not fire trucks.

All the fire trucks on earth (at any cost) can't help without personnel to operate them and do all the other tasks simultaneously needed to suppress a fire in the most efficient fashion.

Both state and federal government have made recruiting, training and retaining of volunteer and paid on-call personnel much more difficult. And that trend seems to be continuing. From a physics point of view the science behind stopping a common fire hasn't changed since caveman times. Burgeoning volumes of rules and growing public expectations cause most of the actual differences in the job. It may be true that modern materials have added a few needed extra cautions but today the real fire incident commander is a lawyer or bureaucrat in a capital someplace, not the person on the street with the portable radio in their hand. The job of stopping that fire on paper, reporting it and doing it within the strictures, has become huge.

I tell people that here in Brewer we run the best fire department that can exist, on paper. Fifty years ago when our station was built there was no office and no file cabinets; today we have five computers in use. We go to fewer fires than in the past, we write lots of reports. With and/or without the oversight of all the new laws, Brewer hasn't lost a firefighter in action since 1911. Most of that time without the legal strictures.

The fact is that while Brewer's new aerial ladder truck cost half a million dollars we will spend more than that half million dollars (in 2001 dollars) during each of the 25 years of that truck's life to staff it and our other trucks. Over its 25-year life the purchase cost will remain at a total of $500,000. Staffing it will cost $12,500,000 plus.

In a true regional scheme, which in the Brewer area's case will most likely be an outgrowth of today's automatic aid operations, we can purchase together, however that won't save but a very few dollars. We might save building a station or two over a long time horizon, but that will only work well if we can ignore municipal boundaries. As Chief Jim Ellis in Holden points out, that requires pooling our money. When will the town fathers be truly ready? Will the towns cede control to a regional authority?

A major, current problem in the fire service involves getting service to the suburban type citizens now moving into the smaller towns. They often expect big city service levels for lower taxes. The reality is that fire stations without on-duty personnel produce much slower responses than stations with personnel on duty.

In the Brewer/Holden/Eddington aid arrangement we have found that a responding engine from a staffed station can make up, in time, the six mile distance to the unstaffed stations thus responding to locations beyond those stations in the same time as the volunteers. The on-duty people get to locations involving less travel more quickly than the volunteers with no regard for municipal boundaries. This faster service is a huge improvement. The fact that through this cooperation we get trained personnel to an incident scene more quickly may be the first and best value we can attain for our customers, the taxpayers, from regional efforts. However, it is only fair that all the municipalities in such a system pay in a fair amount. Today these arrangements often amount to the bigger towns subsidizing the smaller towns.

So why not fill every station with paid personnel? The simple answer is we can't afford it. In fact those of us with the potentially best system, a combination of paid and on-call personnel should be guarding that system's future vigorously.

In those combination systems, like Brewer, the limited number of on-duty people get the trucks moved to the incident scene and the paid on-call personnel meet them there. The call people avoid the travel time to the station to get the equipment because the on-duty people are bringing it. However, we still don't take money from the taxpayers for a full crew sitting on-duty every day. But please note, even that partial on-duty crew costs us the price of a new ladder truck annually. In Brewer, 92.54% of the entire fire department budget goes to payroll.

The big payroll in paid departments is one reason larger towns and cities should be seeking business and personnel managers as fire chiefs not just the person with the most experience at sitting in their fire house. And even when business managers do manage fire services they need clear, well thought-out policy direction from those elected representatives of the customers/taxpayers.

In our automatic aid operation, sort of partial regionalization, we have proven that we can improve service. We have shown that full paid and volunteer firefighters can work well side by side, but so far we haven't saved any money. We won't save any noteworthy money until the town fathers help us build regional systems ignoring municipal boundary lines, with cost constraints that reflect local policy.

As for the ladder truck in every town, yes we should probably have that. Ladder trucks have real uses, not late in the fire suppression operation, after they arrive from 20 miles away, but at the outset. In the fire service we know that it is fairly easy to extend hoses. It's quite a big job to make ladders longer. In years gone by we had more people to set up ground ladders. Today powered aerial ladders are faster than ground ladders in many situations, and they help get those fewer firefighters we have up to where they are needed. (And as a parenthetical note, the length of the aerial ladder is not used to reach to the top of that 10 story building very often, its more used for horizontal reach to the ridgepole or top of the chimney in those older 2 1/2 story houses during chimney fires or lightning strikes.)

Today, fewer people are volunteering and it keeps getting harder to find even good paid on-call people. In part that is because we didn't ask so much of our volunteers before all the new laws were in place. Now volunteer or paid on-call firefighters spend most of their time training and reading rules. That's not what they thought they signed up for. Collectively we have and continue to "improve" training programs (read lengthen training programs) and make more rules about helping your community while being a firefighter. Mostly the only people staying are the ones who can make a full living from their efforts.

The powered aerial ladder can help make up for fewer personnel, the remaining people become more efficient. That idea is being carried to its maximum use in some locations in America today.

Fire trucks with pumps and aerial ladders on them are called "quints" in the fire service. Some cities have gone to the "all quints concept." That gets an aerial ladder to the front door of all structure fires. In Brewer our new ladder truck is a quint. The questions we had about how a quint would be utilized are now answered.

Properly applied in our situation the quint is helping us get the aerial ladder in front of the burning building as the first truck on scene, instead of parked down the street, because of when it arrived. It also lets us use more of our limited number of on-duty personnel as initial fire attack people instead of as truck drivers, so in Brewer it works.

In summation, does every town in Maine need an aerial ladder? In most cases the answer is likely to be yes. It helps replace some people in the operation, and payroll is where all the big costs are in today's fire departments.

Regionalization will eventually save money, not when it saves us from buying ladder trucks so much as when it saves us from spending money on bigger payrolls. Matching that payroll savings goal with meeting current taxpayer service expectations will be the real trick.