Fire Services In Maine
(from Maine Townsman, January 2002)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer


When Governor King is questioning the efficiency of the way Maine provides government services, as he does from time to time, he often uses as an example two adjacent towns that are both buying expensive new fire equipment. “Do both towns really need a ladder truck? Couldn’t they share?”

The governor isn’t the only one asking the question. More than a few town managers and taxpayer groups have noticed that, in some parts of Maine, three or four communities have downtowns within five or six miles of each other. Firefighting is capital-intensive, and depends on the swift, but only occasional, deployment of large amounts of manpower. In theory, at least, municipalities could save money by organizing themselves regionally.

Yet there are significant obstacles to such arrangements, some of them historical. Unlike states where county government provides a strong and logical means of organizing public safety departments, Maine has depended much more on town and city government, with counties offering only limited services that do not include firefighting. Attempts to organize communities to work together run up again strong traditions of local control.

This two-part series on Maine’s fire services will attempt to trace both the possibilities and the limitations for creating efficiencies and better service through regionalization and other means. Part I looks at the history and structure of fire services with emphasis on successful regional efforts.  Part 2, next month, will put Maine into a national perspective, comparing the way Maine communities deliver fire services and our cost of doing so to municipalities in other states.  Next month, the future of regionalization in Maine’s fire services will also be discussed.

Overall, fire protection has enjoyed some signal successes in recent decades, and there are demonstrated ways of making communities safer while keeping costs down. As recently as the late 1960s, as many as 70 people a year lost their lives in fires statewide. The widespread use of smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and broader acceptance of building codes has steadily reduced fatalities. Last year, 18 Mainers died in fires, one more than the total in 2000.

By contrast, highway fatalities continue to average nearly 200 a year. Though vehicles and roads are safer, Mainers are driving longer distances, nearly canceling out those gains in safety.

Elsewhere, communities have managed both to increase fire safety and reduce costs. Steve Willis, state director of Fire Service and Training, who’s based at Southern Maine Technical College, offers Scottsdale, Ariz., as an example. Thirty years ago, this retirement boomtown had roughly 250,000 people and 100 full-time firefighters. It adopted one of the toughest sprinkler ordinances in the nation, requiring systems in all new residential as well as commercial construction, and retrofitting buildings where significant alterations were made. Scottsdale has since grown to 750,000 people – but still has 100 firefighters, thanks to the protection that sprinklers afford.

Such examples have limited applicability to Maine, however. Few communities here have anything like the explosive growth that allows rapid installation of new fire protection devices, and Maine also lacks the compact growth districts forced on the Southwest by the limited availability of water. Still, such examples do show that fire prevention can be highly cost-effective.

Regional services also hold promise. Freeport Chief Darrel Fournier, who previously headed the Waterville department, was under the gun there to contain costs during the early 1990s recession. He commissioned a study of regional services. It found that, initially, there were significant startup costs, since new equipment would be needed and fire stations would have to be realigned. But after four to seven years, communities saw significant reductions in operating budgets – about 40 percent. Fournier said these results are fairly consistent in different areas. Of course, the initial investment can act as a deterrent, as it did in Waterville, which was looking for short-term savings.

Any assessment of regional cooperation in Maine must recognize that there are few governmental or institutional forces pushing in that direction. State government has proven to be lukewarm even about school consolidation, a function clearly within its purview, and it provides few incentives for more regional interaction in fire protection. Fournier, who’s also vice chairman of the state fire planning commission, says the subject of regionalization has yet to come up at meetings. “We haven’t touched the issue so far,” he said.

Yet there are others ways to encourage, if not require, regional approaches. Steve Willis outlines what might be termed a “soft path” to regionalization, structured by carrots rather than sticks. The state provides extensive grants for training, and is a major sponsor of such programs, particularly in southern Maine. It also provides free consultation with local departments, evaluating equipment and performance and coming up with recommendations for cost-effective improvements.

The benefits can be both long-term and subtle. “Departments that train together usually end up finding other ways to cooperate,” Willis said. This may involve something as simple as joint purchases of fire gear to collaboration on specifications for new ladder trucks. “Once people get to know each other, they’re much more likely to work together,” he said.

Cooperation may be vital to providing adequate services at a time when local budgets are again under intense pressure. Willis said that some areas of the state are clearly well protected. He recalls watching a parade in Bangor where fire trucks passed by for nearly an hour. “There were trucks from Kenduskeag, Corinna, Newport. We have a lot of one-horse towns with excellent fire departments.” On the other hand, many towns, such as Mariaville in Hancock County, struggle to provide services. In past years, water was drained from the tankers with the onset of winter because the fire station wasn’t heated. If a house in Mariaville burned in winter, mutual aid was the main option. Since then, the town has acquired newer trucks and created a budget to heat the station. But many small towns face these challenges year after year.

Endangered Volunteers

Another, less expected force pointing toward regionalization is the uncertain state of volunteer firefighting, the traditional backbone of fire protection in Maine. With just 1,000 professional and 11,000 volunteers, Maine has one of the highest ratios of volunteer forces in the country, Willis said. Being able to call on these volunteers saves municipalities as much as $50 million a year.

But there’s serious concern about whether Maine will be able to maintain these levels of volunteerism, let alone expand them in towns that are growing rapidly.

Saco Fire Chief Alden Murphy points out that cadets have to receive 164 hours of training to become accredited firefighters. “When we tell them there are also two meetings a month, all for $1,000 a year, it can be a deterrent,” he said.

Murphy and other chiefs said the new federal “two in, two out” rule, which requires two firefighters outside a burning structure backing up two inside, has created serious manpower challenges for rural departments. “As much as anything else, federal regulations have destroyed the call-volunteer system,” said Gorham Chief Bob Lefebvre — even though he doesn’t dispute the need for regulations.

As a group, chiefs are generally supportive of the federal rules — most of them mandated by OSHA and administered by the Maine Department of Labor — and see them as rationally related to the hazardous nature of firefighting. But it doesn’t make the job easier. “When I came on the force in 1972, I attended a training session and went to work,” said Freeport’s Darrel Fournier. “We trained on the job.” Not only the required training, but the number of potential volunteers working two jobs, with an increase in “affluent, professional people” who are less likely to volunteer, make it difficult to maintain all-volunteer forces, he said. In fact, Freeport hired its first two full-time firefighters a year ago, and may need more if the town continues to grow.

Equipment needs, except in the smallest towns, have been met fairly well, “but staffing will be a problem, and a  growing problem,” said South Portland Chief John True, who’s also immediate past president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association. “Businesses are less likely to let volunteers go [to fires], except in small communities.”

There is some evidence of a chilling effect. Concerns about a lack of employer cooperation are serious enough so that a bill will be considered in the current legislative session that would prohibit employers from firings or laying off an employee who is absent to fight a fire. Rep. Deborah Hutton [D-Bowdoinham] said she knew of a local case of an employee nearly being fired because he reported to work late. Just the fact that the Legislature has to consider such a bill shows how things have changed, say the chiefs.

Mutual aid modernized

Local fire departments have depended on mutual aid agreements almost from the beginning. They make particular sense in cases of large fires which require more firefighters than any one department can bring to bear. Staffing single stations for such fires would be virtually impossible, but by calling in help from other departments, the job gets done.

The original mutual aid agreements were highly informal — no more than a handshake and an understanding between two chiefs. Now, more of them are being written down and formalized, specifying exactly what each department will do for the other. Augusta Chief James Farrell, who was appointed six months ago, said that while there are four written agreements with neighboring towns, many mutual aid pacts are verbal. One of his first priorities is to get them written down.

Another increasingly common feature is “automatic mutual aid,” where trucks from a neighboring community roll out to the same alarm, if a fire is near the station but across the town border. These arrangements are most popular in southern Maine, but are also common among border towns that have Canadian twin cities. Madawaska Chief Norman Cyr said he has informal mutual aid agreements with neighboring Maine towns, but relies more on Edmundston, across the border. The all-volunteer Madawaska force meshes surprisingly well with the full-time Edmundston department, he said.  Madawaska has often made use of the aerial ladder truck the Canadians can provide. Still, there are differences. Canadian protective gear isn’t designed to OSHA standards, something that could create a liability problem if someone were injured fighting a fire over the border.

Joint purchasing

Joint purchasing is one place where it seems that departments can gain significant budget savings without losing autonomy. And in some cases, it works well.

Augusta Chief Farrell, who most recently served as a chief in upstate New York, said that 17 communities in his area, large and small, got together to write common specifications for new fire trucks, in the process saving up to a third of the cost. But those projects seem to work best in areas where high levels of cooperation are already in evidence.

South Portland Chief John True tells a cautionary tale about his city’s efforts to participate in a group buy of new engines, this one organized nationally by a purchasing cooperative. Initially, about 25 departments signed on for the joint bid, which would have allowed some individual specifications within prescribed limits. But when one vendor’s bid was accepted over that of another, many departments dropped out. “This isn’t like police cars, where everyone is buying essentially the same package,” True observed. “Everyone is real particular about what kind of fire truck they want. Someone will notice that there’s a top-mounted vs. a side-mounted pump, and say, ‘We’ve never had one of those before.’ ” Chiefs aren’t always eager to recognize the difference between wants and needs, he said.

South Portland stuck with the process, but another Maine department withdrew because it didn’t like the supplier, and another dropped out because it was facing a tight deadline. The remaining seven departments held conference calls to try to iron out differences, but True was struck by how the different vendors “were willing to cut each other up. They didn’t like this process. They were each used to getting at least part of what they bid for.”

Finally, the effort was abandoned. South Portland is seeking new bids on the truck, nearly a year later. True said that a joint purchasing initiative for Cumberland County suffered a similar fate. Initially, about 20 towns were involved, but only four or five participated last year, and this year the effort seems to have gone by the boards.

In Hancock County, active district fire councils have gotten individual departments thinking about how to share resources, said Blue Hill Chief Denny Robertson. He admits to certain prejudices of his own that limit the idea of shared purchasing: “You like a certain kind of hose, a certain kind of foam.” But in the small departments in his area, chiefs are willing to trade off on certain purchases and share the results; one of them may buy a thermal imaging camera, another a CO2 monitor. And services rather than equipment are often easier to share. Pumpers must be tested annually, so Robertson and the other area chiefs try to schedule the testing firm to come the same week, saving money.

Case studies

Maine does have some examples of formal regional cooperation which, though relatively rare, have delivered significant benefits over time.

Gorham has actually built fire stations in cooperation with neighboring towns, with each town keeping trucks and dispatching personnel from the same station. The first such arrangement, with Windham, dates back 60 years.  When Chief Lefebvre was hired, about 20 years ago, he immediately started to pursue these types of arrangements with other area towns.  Within two years, Gorham built a station jointly with Scarborough, and two years after that, Standish agreed to do the same.

If there’s a fire in the vicinity, both towns turn out, and the town where the fire occurred reimburses the other for the hourly wages and worker’s compensation payments involved. Cooperation “has been excellent,” Lefebvre said. One of the reasons it works is that all of the towns involved are growing, and each, except Standish, has a small full-time force that probably wouldn’t be adequate without automatic assistance from neighbors. Gorham and Scarborough each have eight full-timers and Windham has six. All have sizeable call departments, in Gorham’s case, a total of 130 people.

Still, Lefebvre recalled that, “When I first proposed this to Scarborough, I can remember going to meetings and having people say that we were crazy to try this, that it would never work.” Nearly two decades later, he said, “If people want it to work, it’ll work. If they don’t, it won’t.” He believes it’s possible to extend cooperation well beyond fire protection into other town departments.

For Gorham, it’s been the best of both worlds. Without eliminating town boundaries, it’s been able to realize the benefits of regionalization. Its annual operating expenses are $484,705, or $34.27 per capita, significantly less that those of many similar sized towns.

Other area chiefs speak admiringly of the system Lefebvre has created, but none, so far, has been able to duplicate it.

Six towns in western Kennebec County have taken mutual aid to an unusual level. Formed in 1975 and incorporated in 1992, Lakes Region Mutual Aide [stet] coordinates fire departments in Manchester, Readfield, Wayne, Mt. Vernon, Fayette and Vienna in a way that resembles a regional department.

The key, according to Al Godfrey, who administers the organization, was the decision to jointly buy the same pager system for each all-volunteer company. Each town has its own tone on the pager, and for small fires only that community responds. But the same system allows dispatching to the entire group, simultaneously, a feature he believes is unique in Maine: “You can say you have mutual aid, but there’s no substitute for getting everyone going at the same time.”

The rules also take on a notoriously prickly subject between departments. The chief who arrives first at the fire takes command. If the local chief comes later, he has the option of taking over or deferring to the scene commander.

The organization has gone on to do extensive joint purchasing and training. Each town tries to buy equipment that complements, rather than duplicates, what’s purchased by its neighbors.

Even with six towns, though, the volunteer system can be strained. Godfrey recalls a brush fire on Fourth of July weekend, “when everyone was away and we had a hard time putting 13 men on the fire.” Such incidents suggest that, some day, Lakes Region Mutual Aide may have to explore becoming a single department, he said.

Regional initiatives such as those in Gorham and in Kennebec County may depend on a single individual with an idea, as in Gorham, or where there is a previous basis of cooperation. Four of the six Kennebec County towns share a community school district focused on the Maranacook School in Readfield, and the other two have cooperative ventures with their neighbors. Looking statewide, these efforts seem more the exception than the rule, a model for cooperation rather than something that’s become institutionalized. Thus far, the potential of regional fire services in Maine has been largely unexplored.

NEXT MONTH: How does Maine stack up against other states when it comes to fire safety and providing efficient services? And what is the future of regionalization in a state where local control is not only a cherished ideal, but an everyday reality?

SIDEBAR:

Comparing Municipal Fire Departments…cautiously

Measuring the efficiency of municipal spending is always tricky, and comparing local fire services in MMA's 2001 Fiscal Survey is harder than comparing most other categories. Unlike many other states, which organize fire protection and other services by county, Maine has no truly regional fire departments, and instead relies on a wide variety of mutual aid arrangements.

As measured by per capita spending, Portland, as one might expect, spends the most at $9.4 million, or $146.59 per person. At the other end of the scale, some rural communities may spend $10 per person, or even less.

But per capita spending is an extremely rough measure. Communities of the same overall size may have extremely different fire protection needs. A fast-growing suburban town may have the same population as an older service center community, but consists primarily of widely scattered single-family dwellings, rather than old multi-story factory buildings and densely built downtowns. The difficulty and expense of fire protection in older downtowns is exponentially greater than in communities where detached housing predominates. Where fire protection costs are high, as in municipalities with significant commercial and industrial property, the tax base is also much larger  allowing even relatively small communities to raise significant revenue.

Nevertheless, it is possible to make some generalizations about fire costs in Maine, and how different communities approach the problems of fire protection. Towns and cities with full-time firefighting forces have significantly higher costs than those that rely primarily or entirely on call or volunteer firefighters, who are generally paid stipends per hour or per call. At present, Maine has about 1,000 full-time professional firefighters and about 11,000 call or volunteer firefighters. Yet communities thinking about starting or expanding volunteer contingents will face serious recruitment problems; most existing call companies are having to redouble their efforts simply to keep up current numbers.

In general, service center communities have the largest professional forces while the most sparsely populated rural towns are dependent on volunteers. Just about all the service centers, even small ones, spend $50 per person and up. Still, local differences are common and the range of spending, even for apparently similar communities, is quite wide. It would take a far more detailed survey to even begin to get a handle on the reasons for the variations.

Prosperity has something to do with it, as well, with isolated communities in the far north and east spending among the least per person. But there are surprises. Frenchville, in northern Aroostook County, spends less than $10 per person – but so does Georgetown, a coastal enclave in Sagadahoc County.

Another factor worth considering is the fire safety rating produced by the Insurance Services Office (See chart.) The ratings — where a score of 1 reflection the greatest protection and 10 indicates no protection at all — are used by insurers to set homeowner and commercial rates. They are particularly important for commercial and industrial properties; a rating, say, of 3 will save the owner of a large building a lot of money over or 6 or 7 rating. Such costs should be balanced against municipal expenditures to gain a more accurate picture of local efficiency.

A look at three middle-sized service center communities illustrates some of the factors involved. Auburn, Augusta and Saco each have extensive older downtowns, along with substantial industrial property, some of it using hazardous materials.

Auburn, the largest of the three, also has some of the greatest firefighting challenges, include plastic manufacturing and other plants capable of producing fires difficult to control and hazardous to firefighters. Auburn Fire Chief Wayne Werts notes that following a recent explosion and fire at a plastics manufacturer, half of the firefighters responding had to have medical treatment.

Augusta was once a mill town, but it is now dominated by a service economy surrounding state government. The biggest firefighting challenges involve state buildings and the circumstance that Augusta lies on both sides of the Kennebec River, with only two bridges connecting the east and west banks.

Saco has a sizeable downtown to protect, but its population and businesses are generally more dispersed than the other two cities.

Auburn has 60 full-time firefighters and an operating budget of $2.8 million, and does not have any call firefighters. Werts said that the number of firefighters has remained stable for at least 20 years. Augusta has budgeted $1.76 million this year, and has 42 full-time firefighters – down from about 50 before the recession of the early 1990s, according to Chief James Farrell. Augusta, like Auburn, uses no call firefighters; they are among only five cities in Maine to have all-professional forces, the others being Portland, Lewiston and Bangor. Saco spends $715,000 and has 27 full-time firefighters plus a call contingent of 29.

Per capita expenditures are $120.67 in Auburn, $94.82 in Augusta and $42.48 in Saco. Auburn’s ISO safety rating is 3, among the best in Maine. Augusta and Saco both have an ISO rating of 4.

Another variable in fire department spending involves emergency medical services, which are usually provided by the same department, and often by the same personnel as those who respond to fires. On average, EMS budgets are about half those devoted to fire services, but there are again large variations and different ways of accounting for expenses. Lewiston, which has a fire budget of $3.8 million, for instance, reports only $15,493 for EMS spending. And while most EMS runs are supported by tax dollars, some communities structure it differently.

Augusta, which provides EMS services for five communities in the area, uses an “enterprise account” for the $818,336 listed in annual spending. According to Chief Farrell, the budget is supported by revenue collected from the other towns and from fees assessed for each run, meaning that no tax dollars are spent on rescue calls.

 

Fire Department Spending and Safety Ratings

(selected communities)

Town/City   County   2000 
Population
Spending  Per 
Capita    
 ISO
Rating
           
Auburn  Androscoggin     23,302   $2,800,000  $120.67   3
Augusta                   Kennebec      18,560    1,760,000    94.82 4
Saco  York  16,822  714,636   42.48  4
Winthrop  Kennebec  6.232  266,408 42.75  5
Camden   Knox 5,254  476,619   90.71 4
Millinocket  Penobscot 5,203 512,589 98.51 5
Woolwich  Sagadahoc  2,810  89,144 31.72  5
Farmingdale   Kennebec  2,804  121,450 43.31  6
Anson  Somerset      2,583 156,875  60.73  6
Cornish  York 1,269 79,913  62.97  7
Bradley    Penobscot 1,242  62,449   50.28  7
Frenchville   Aroostook   1,225  12,238 9.90   9