The town has added a third part-time firefighter as it seeks to maintain 12 hours of daytime coverage on weekdays.
The Harpswell Board of Selectmen agreed to hire Mike Drake for the position on Nov. 10, with a start date of Nov. 14. Drake was already a per diem firefighter for the town. He has a paramedic license and retired from the Bath Fire Department.
The position “will help substantially in improving our coverage towards the expected goal of 120 hours of coverage/week for the Town,” Harpswell Fire Administrator Arthur Howe III said in a memo to the select board.
Howe said that Drake has an “excellent rapport with all parties in town” and “has done some really great work and some training with the three volunteer companies in town.” He called Drake a “very respected individual” and a “great addition” to the town’s firefighting corps.
Harpswell has three independent fire departments: the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department, Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue, and the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department. Because the independent departments struggle to recruit and retain volunteers, the town supplements their efforts.
The town aims to have two firefighters on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, when volunteers are less likely to be available. The firefighters work out of stations on Harpswell Neck and Orr’s Island. The town also contracts Mid Coast Hospital to have a paramedic on duty 24/7. The paramedic works out of a station on Mountain Road, near the Town Office.
In recent years, the town has staffed firefighting shifts with a combination of two part-time firefighters, who work 20-36 hours per week and receive benefits; and per diem firefighters, who work as needed and do not qualify for benefits.
The town is not always able to have two firefighters on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, a total of 120 work hours. Howe said the town usually fills about 92% or 93% of those hours, but has dropped as low as the high 70s during the summer.
“Once in a while we do hit 100% coverage for the week, but that would be an exception to hit 100%, so this will certainly help to close that gap,” Howe said.
In December 2021, the Harpswell Fire and Rescue Planning Committee asked the select board to add a third part-time position to help fill weekday shifts. The town did not move forward at the time, but the committee renewed the request in October.
Committee member David Mercier presented the request to the board on Oct. 13.
“It will reduce our demand on per diems. It’ll give us more consistency with the folks that we have now, with the other two part-time people that we have. It allows those three people to become more familiar with our equipment, more familiar with our geography and more familiar with all our personnel,” Mercier said.
“This is really a natural migration of the municipal firefighter program,” Mercier said. “We knew five years ago that … as we have fewer and fewer volunteers, as every other community around us, then we’re going to have to supplement those and support those with this program.”
Mercier serves as fire chief for one of the independent departments, Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue. “Recently I had an acre-and-a-half woods fire and had it not been for the per diems on duty, I would have been the only responder,” he said.
Mercier and the per diems were able “to get an early knockdown on that fire,” but still had to contend with it for three days, he said.
“So it’s a very valuable program and I certainly encourage you to support our request for that third person,” Mercier said.