Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Aaron Despres (left) and Jonathan Burbank examine a leak from one of the station’s trucks. (SAM LEMONICK PHOTO)
The Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department needs more emergency responders. Several members have recently resigned or retired from the service, and new recruits are scarce. “We’re holding on by the skin of our teeth,” says Fire and Rescue Chief Benjamin Wallace Jr.
The department counts 17 volunteers, about 14 of whom actively respond to calls, according to Wallace. He says the shortage is growing particularly acute when it comes to medical emergencies. Only two active volunteers are emergency medical technicians. If both are busy when a call comes in, callers in the department’s service area have to wait for a paramedic to respond from the Mountain Road station, or for another department.
These issues are not unique to the Cundy’s Harbor department, which covers all of Great Island north of Stevens Corner Road. The National Volunteer Fire Council reports that the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a low point in 2017 and has stayed flat in most departments since. The number of emergency calls, meanwhile, has tripled over the last 30 years. Harpswell’s other two independent departments — on Harpswell Neck and on Orr’s and Bailey islands — have struggled with staffing to varying degrees.
Current and former Cundy’s Harbor volunteers give varying reasons for the department’s difficulties. Age is one of them. Some of the active responders shouldn’t be rushing into burning buildings, says Wallace. “They’ve earned the right to say they’re retired. The problem is, we don’t have people coming in to fill the vacancies.” Earlier this year, one of the department’s EMTs, Rescue Chief Ray Greene, resigned for a move to Florida.
But Harpswell’s aging population and its lack of affordable housing make finding younger members hard, says CHVFD Capt. Duncan Wood. He joined after witnessing the department’s work in the 1998 ice storm, and at 66, he is still one of its primary interior firefighters.
Even when young people are interested in joining the department, Wood and others say it can be hard for them to work around the time commitments required of volunteer firefighters.
Firefighters take a six-month course to learn how to safely enter burning buildings, attending sessions on two weeknights and one full weekend day each week. EMT training lasts about three months. The department pays for all members’ training, as well as for their equipment.
That amount of training is a far cry from what Wood and other longtime members went through. Initial training was a few weekend courses when they started, and much of what they learned came from mentors within the department and training on the job.
Active responders are expected to drop whatever they’re doing when calls come in, whether it’s the middle of the night or the middle of the workday. The department also meets on two evenings each month, once to maintain the station’s trucks and equipment and once for training.
CHVFD Assistant Chief Aaron Despres says he struggles to participate in all department activities. He has small children and runs his own businesses. He tries to attend the training nights and respond to emergency calls at a minimum, but says he often finds he isn’t able to make the trainings.
Others find they can’t participate at all. Sven Pulsifer stepped down after several years of active duty with the department when his daughter was born four years ago. He says he plans to return when he has more time.
Department members emphasize that they also need volunteers for less time-intensive roles. Driving a truck or ambulance requires just one weekend course. The department could also use help managing its social media accounts, for instance, and help on maintenance nights.
Members of the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department check firefighting equipment during a monthly maintenance night. (SAM LEMONICK PHOTO)
Age and time commitments are not the only reasons members decide to step back. Sean Ruel started volunteering in 2016, about a year after moving to Harpswell. He says he enjoyed his six-month training at the fire academy, but his time with CHVFD was not rewarding. His only interactions with the department were responding to calls and attending maintenance and training nights. He didn’t feel a sense of engagement or community with the other members. “It asks a lot and it didn’t give back very much,” Ruel says.
Several longtime CHVFD members say they know what Ruel means. But many also say that building community or socializing within the department are not their reasons for volunteering. “I don’t have any expectation or desire for that,” says Wood.
But it was something else that made Ruel finally step down. He describes receiving a radio call to check a smoke alarm just after he got home from a long day of work. After driving to the station to join other firefighters on the truck, they arrived to find a malfunctioning alarm system in a large, unoccupied oceanfront home. Ruel says in that moment he felt like his volunteer work was being taken advantage of by people who weren’t as interested in his community.
The department has been able to recruit two new members in the last two years. One, Camden Galvin, joined as an EMT in April 2021, and this summer finished his firefighting course. Galvin, 21, also works as a part-time firefighter in Durham, and hopes to have a career in emergency services. He says he’d like to keep volunteering with CHVFD as long as he lives in Harpswell. But Wallace says the department needs to get two new firefighters and two new EMTs each year to maintain an effective roster.
Harpswell has three fire volunteer fire departments, which operate independently of the town and of one another. Each has struggled at times with recruitment and retention. Harpswell Fire Administrator Arthur Howe says the long driving distances between different parts of the town necessitate having separate stations.
The town hired Howe in 2017 to address problems with daytime fire response times. He has worked to put two paid firefighters on duty between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, who can augment the volunteer response. Those firefighters respond to calls, but spend their shifts at the Orr’s Island and Harpswell Neck stations, which have more amenities than Cundy’s Harbor.
The town now also purchases trucks, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, for each of the departments, and helps pay for some operating costs. And it contracts Mid Coast Hospital to keep a paramedic at a Mountain Road station 24/7.
Howe says if current trends continue, it may one day make sense for the town to hire full-time firefighters. But that would be a significant financial burden for the town. To maintain 24/7 staffing with just one firefighter on duty would cost about $350,000 a year, he estimates.
The CHVFD is trying to make sure people know it needs more help. Wallace says the department has just started using Facebook to advertise some of the positions available to volunteers. Last year the department also began exploring the possibility of building a new, larger firehouse. The current station has no space for volunteers to gather or spend their downtime, and Wallace thinks that could help recruit and retain members.
A 2018 renovation of the Orr’s Island Fire Station, where Wallace is also chief, added a gym and a dayroom with a TV. Assistant Chief Sean Hall says that has helped to create more interest in volunteering. The department has grown its membership from about 10 to about 30 in the last few years.
Hall says the OBIFD has also been developing new volunteer roles, like directing traffic or organizing tools at the scene of a fire. “We’ve tried to create a culture where there is a job for everybody,” Hall says. And following national models, the department has also started discussing a junior firefighting program with Mt. Ararat High School.
Despres says OBIFD’s recent successes could be a roadmap for his department. He thinks CHVFD is on the right track to building an effective roster of responders for the town. “I’m optimistic we can turn it around,” he says.
Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.