Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue’s Irving F. Chipman Station. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
While the dedication of an aging core keeps the department functioning, the ranks of volunteers at Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue have become so thin the department responds to structure fires without enough people to go inside and has half the people it could use to provide emergency medical services.
Fire Chief David Mercier has about eight interior firefighters, but not all respond to every fire. At recent structure fires, “I’ve only had two others turn out besides myself,” Mercier said.
“Twelve people on scene would be ideal” for a structure fire, Mercier said, but even two more would help.
Unless firefighters need to rescue someone, they cannot enter a building without four firefighters present.
“I can’t send two people in unless I have two people outside, ready to go in,” Mercier said, in case the first two firefighters need rescuing.
The Neck’s shorthandedness means it relies heavily on assistance from the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department and the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department, as well as the Brunswick Fire Department.
All three Harpswell departments automatically respond to a structure fire anywhere in town, while the fire chiefs can request aid from Brunswick and beyond if necessary.
But Harpswell’s geography means it takes time for help to arrive. In March 2020, the departments extinguished a house fire on Basin Point — a 20-minute trip for the island departments.
The rescue side of Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue needs help too.
“We have a core of about a dozen people who are active,” Rescue Chief Harvey Pough said. He could use “twice as many, at least.”
With a couple of welcome exceptions, most of the rescue volunteers range in age from their late 50s to about 80, according to Pough.
“We need younger people, because fire and rescue takes younger, stronger bodies, better eyes,” said Marolyn Bibber, an advanced emergency medical technician who serves as rescue captain.
But few young people are available.
“They’re working. They have to earn a living, support a family, so most of us are retirees,” said Deb Randall, an ambulance driver and board member.
The drivers and EMTs take on-call shifts. Pough is on the schedule 66 hours a week and often responds to calls outside those hours.
The coronavirus pandemic made a bad situation worse. “We lost a couple of people because they were at risk or had family members who were at risk,” Pough said.
The town of Harpswell contracts Mid Coast Hospital to provide a paramedic 24/7. The Mid Coast paramedic works out of a station on Mountain Road and responds to every medical call in Harpswell, but the volunteer services provide ambulance transport as well as first aid.
More than anything else, the Neck’s rescue operation needs more EMTs. It has four right now.
For years, Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue has sought to recruit new members. Those efforts have yielded limited results, which Mercier attributes to demographics.
“We do not have young people on our side of town to participate,” he said, and he sees the situation as unlikely to change. He joined the department in 1965 and estimated the average age of his firefighters at 55-60.
Sometimes the department finds an enthusiastic volunteer, only to have the person balk at the time commitment for training.
A new firefighter must undergo more than 400 hours of training over six months. An EMT must complete the equivalent of a yearlong college course. A driver must pass an emergency vehicle operations course. All roles require ongoing training.
“We have to meet all the same rules and regulations as a career department,” Mercier said.
Volunteers receive a modest stipend, but find other rewards in the work.
“The community needs this service,” Pough said. Volunteers learn lifelong skills and experience what Randall called “the powerful feeling of helping others.” They work as part of a supportive and tight-knit team. Once people join, they tend to stay.
Mercier, a former selectman, noted that volunteer emergency medical services help keep Harpswell taxes the lowest in Cumberland County. A transition to a full-time fire service would result in a substantial budget increase.
The town currently employs a full-time fire administrator, along with part-time and per diem firefighters — enough so it has two available to respond anywhere in Harpswell from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. The town firefighters work out of a station on Orr’s Island now, but will spend some of their time at the Neck station after the completion of a major renovation around mid-September.
Mercier sits on the town’s fire and rescue planning committee, which continually reviews issues like volunteer levels and how Harpswell’s combination of independent, volunteer departments and municipal services is working.
“Is what we’re doing sustainable? That is the question we have to answer,” Mercier said. “And if it isn’t, what are we going to do about it?”
To inquire about volunteer opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org.