Harpswell Fire Administrator Arthur “Art” Howe III will retire effective July 10. (J.W. Oliver photo)
Harpswell’s first fire administrator, Arthur “Art” Howe III, will retire July 10 after six years on the job and nearly a half-century in public safety.
Howe, 68, announced his retirement “with bittersweet feelings” on March 23.
“I cannot begin to convey my appreciation to all those that have made my time in Harpswell so meaningful and important to me,” he said in his retirement letter.
“I hope the standard of care and service to Harpswell will continue to have the bar raised,” Howe said. “From a profession I never remotely considered until 1974, this career has been profound, challenging, and rewarding beyond measure.”
In addition to his role as fire administrator, Howe serves as Harpswell’s head of emergency management and works at least 10 hours a week as an on-duty firefighter.
The Harpswell Select Board and Town Administrator Kristi Eiane praised Howe during a meeting on March 30.
“We appreciate so much what Art has accomplished while he’s been here and the relationships that he’s developed in the community, the partnerships, coordinating with our three independent fire departments and providing supplemental services to those departments, so we will miss him, but we appreciate all the professionalism that he has displayed during his time here in Harpswell and how graciously he has announced his retirement,” Eiane said.
Select Board member David I. Chipman said that he does not know how the town will replace Howe, “or if it’s even possible.”
“I found him to be a fantastic resource and a really easy person to work with,” Chipman said.
Eiane said the town plans to “review and evaluate” the position, with input from its Fire and Rescue Planning Committee, before the Select Board considers whether to make changes to the job description.
The town “does not plan on advertising the position until this process has been completed,” she said.
Howe was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of a Yale University dean who advocated for the school to admit women. Howe also spent time in England and New York while growing up.
“I come from a family that has been very involved with public service and education,” he said. His father had driven ambulances in World War II. His grandfather was a college president, as well as a minister and teacher. His great-grandfather founded a university.
Howe attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “And that’s where I caught this fever” for public safety, Howe said during an interview at Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue’s Irving F. Chipman Station.
A fraternity brother told him the Hanover Fire Department wanted student firefighters to live in its new station. In exchange for a room and a stipend, the students would be on duty two nights a week.
Howe joined the department in 1974. Within a month, “I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said.
“It had the right mix of physicality and being outdoors,” he said, and he enjoyed the mental side of the profession — the opportunity to learn something new every day.
Hanover lies on the New Hampshire border, across the Connecticut River from Norwich, Vermont. Howe enjoyed his work with the Hanover department so much, he joined the Norwich department too. He graduated from both Dartmouth and the state fire academy in 1976.
After three years as a firefighter at a Pratt & Whitney manufacturing plant with 25,000 employees in East Hartford, Connecticut, he went to work for the West Hartford Fire Department in 1980.
Howe spent almost 23 years in West Hartford, retiring at the end of 2002 as a battalion fire chief. He worked at the Connecticut Fire Academy for three years before taking a position as fire chief of Ipswich, Massachusetts, a coastal town about 30 miles north of Boston.
After five years as chief and stints as manager of public safety at Ipswich’s popular Crane Beach and as an administrator with a public health organization, a tragedy in Portland brought Howe to Maine.
The day after Halloween in 2014, a fire at a duplex killed six people in their 20s. The landlord served jail time for a fire-code violation. The Noyes Street fire spurred Portland to open a Housing Safety Office, with Howe as its head.
The office was responsible for 17,000 units across 4,000 properties in Maine’s biggest city. Howe prioritized checks for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, as well as safe exits. “I didn’t want to have a repeat of the tragedy,” he said.
While Howe was working to keep Portland tenants safe, a small town up the coast was examining its firefighting needs.
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.
Volunteer fire departments across the country are struggling to recruit and retain firefighters. Harpswell is no different.
The town started to look at how it could supplement volunteer coverage on weekdays, when the dwindling ranks of volunteers are often out of town for work.
The town’s top priority for the new position of fire administrator was to create a workforce of municipal firefighters to work weekday shifts. Howe started work in July 2017. Today, the town employs three regular part-time firefighters and four per diem firefighters.
Howe called his staff “a remarkable group of firefighters” with high-level certifications. Five of the seven are career firefighters or public safety professionals at other agencies.
Another charge for Howe was to “build and foster” relationships between the three independent departments and the town’s Department of Public Safety. The four entities are working well together, he said.
Howe devotes many hours to what he calls “community risk reduction,” which aims to prevent fires and injuries.
He delivers medical equipment to residents, from canes and crutches to hospital beds and shower chairs.
The town has an inventory of secondhand medical equipment in storage at Mitchell Field. When the town has surplus equipment, he works with an organization that sends it to places like war-torn Ukraine and developing nations in Africa.
When he delivers or picks up equipment, he performs a home safety inspection at the same time. He checks for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and installs them when necessary, at no cost to the resident. He often works in conjunction with Harpswell Aging at Home, which he called “a great partner” on safety issues.
Other risk reduction activities include giving out bicycle helmets to kids and collecting expired marine flares from boaters.
Howe also serves as the town’s emergency management agent, coordinating its response to storms and other events.
He was on the scene in Bailey Island on July 27, 2020, after a fatal shark attack on a swimmer in Mackerel Cove thrust the community into the national spotlight. Howe called it a “very sad, tragic day.”
The attack has raised awareness of the presence of sharks in Maine waters. Harpswell now has a shark hotline and deploys shark flags, while Howe serves as lead coordinator of the Maine Shark Work Group, which brings together shark experts from the New England coast.
Howe advises his successor as fire administrator to lead and nurture the staff and “keep it fun,” as well as to “come in with an open mind” and understand the relationship with the volunteer departments.
The fire administrator needs to accept their role, he said. The administrator is not a fire chief and must work alongside the chiefs of the independent departments, who hold authority over their jurisdictions.
Howe expects the role of the town to grow as the population grows and volunteer recruitment remains challenging. Whether in 10 years or 30, he expects the town to eventually have a small crew of firefighters on duty 24/7, still working in partnership with volunteers.
In retirement, Howe will remain active in public safety through consulting and education. He advises large businesses and institutions on fire protection and risk assessments. He also teaches classes on fishing safety and outdoor safety.
He will continue volunteering as a Rotarian and a board member with a Massachusetts chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization. He wants to write about outdoor safety — articles and maybe a book. He also likes to bike, hike, play tennis, go fly fishing and travel.
He and his partner, who will retire in August, plan to set out on a cross-country trip in late August, including a horseback trip through a national forest in New Mexico and a visit to Yellowstone National Park.
He wants to spend more time with family, including his two adult children. He lives in South Portland and plans to stay in Maine.
“It’s been a rich, amazing experience that I never in my wildest dreams imagined at age 19,” Howe said of his career. “It grabbed me hard and has not let me go.”