Mike Drake is Harpswell’s new fire administrator. (J.W. Oliver photo)
Harpswell has promoted one of its part-time municipal firefighters, Mike Drake, to serve as the town’s next full-time fire administrator.
Drake replaces Arthur “Art” Howe III, who retired July 13 after six years on the job and nearly a half-century in public safety. Like Howe, Drake will also serve as the town’s emergency management agent and fire warden.
Drake started work in the new position on Aug. 7 at a salary of $60,000. He will work two 12-hour shifts as an on-duty firefighter and two eight-hour shifts at the Town Office, where he can focus on administrative duties.
Drake, 49, of West Bath, joined the town staff as a per diem firefighter in December 2020 and became a regular part-time firefighter in November 2022. He holds certifications as a firefighter and paramedic, as well as a firefighting instructor.
He serves as a captain in the West Bath Fire Department, a volunteer agency. He was a full-time firefighter and paramedic with the Bath Fire Department for 25 years, until his retirement from the post in October 2021. He also was a full-time lobsterman until August 2022.
“Mr. Drake’s years of work experiences prior to coming to Harpswell and his service in Harpswell uniquely position him to take on the challenges ahead,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said in a memo to the Harpswell Select Board. The Select Board approved the hire on July 20.
“I look forward to working with all of you and the town firefighting staff and volunteers to provide the best service that we can to the town,” Drake told the Select Board. “There’s going to be some challenges coming up and I look forward to taking them on.”
A five-member interview team recommended the hire. Team members were Eiane, Deputy Town Administrator Terri Lynn Gaudet, Select Board Chair Kevin Johnson, Harpswell Neck Fire Chief David Mercier, and Cundy’s Harbor and Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Chief Ben Wallace.
Howe “is supportive of the team’s recommendation and committed to a smooth and successful transition,” Eiane said in the memo.
At the time of Drake’s hiring as a part-time firefighter, Howe said that Drake had an “excellent rapport with all parties in town” and called him a “very respected individual.”
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. every weekday, 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 keep a paramedic on duty 24/7 at a station next to the Town Office.
The town employs three part-time firefighters, who work at least 20 hours per week and receive benefits; and four per diem firefighters, who work as needed and do not qualify for benefits.
The fire administrator manages the municipal firefighters. He also will assist the independent departments with recruitment and training.
An ‘obvious’ career
A family tragedy pushed Drake toward firefighting. His paternal grandparents died in a fire in West Bath on Dec. 23, 1974, when Drake was not yet a year old.
The loss has motivated him throughout his career, he said in an interview on his first day as fire administrator. He still has a card from his kindergarten teacher bearing a prediction: “It’s obvious Mike is going to grow up to be a fireman.”
Drake’s father was a firefighter in West Bath. As a boy, he would tag along to emergency scenes. “The pager would go off and I’d jump in with him and go to the call,” he said. He joined the department at the age of 15.
Drake graduated from Morse High School in 1992. In 1996, he landed his full-time job with the Bath department.
“Being able to make a difference for someone in their time of need is just a good feeling,” he said of his 34 years in the fire service.
In addition to his roles in Harpswell and West Bath, Drake works part time as an instructor for a regional fire academy. He also trains trainers, having run live fire exercises for future instructors from across North America at an annual convention in Indiana.
Drake was a lobsterman for more than 30 years, fishing 500 traps between shifts with the Bath department.
“I started in a 10-foot rowboat and I had 10 traps,” he said. “My mom would sit on the bank and watch me to make sure I didn’t fall overboard and drown.”
Drake lives on Birch Point in West Bath, where his grandparents lived. “I can actually see Harpswell from my house, but it takes a half an hour to get there,” he said.
He would cross the New Meadows River to sell his catch to Durant Lobster in Cundy’s Harbor. But he pulled up his traps last summer. “It was time to slow down a little bit,” he said.
Drake is trying to sell his boat, a 32-foot 2017 H&H named Nola & Carolyn for his grandmothers. But he thinks he’ll buy a skiff and tend a small number of traps. “Once you do it that long, you never get out of it,” he said.
Recruitment is biggest challenge
In his remarks to the Select Board, Drake acknowledged the challenges ahead for emergency services in Harpswell. The biggest, he says, is recruitment, especially for the volunteer departments. Volunteer numbers are dwindling and the volunteers who remain are aging.
Fire departments also are struggling to fill professional positions. Drake said a recent check of a municipal job board showed that 22 of Maine’s fire departments were hiring.
Drake expects his experience as both a full-time and volunteer firefighter to prove helpful in Harpswell, as he works with both his staff and the volunteer departments.
“To be a volunteer, you have to have the same qualifications as a full-time firefighter,” Drake said. Both groups take the same classes, which involves a significant time commitment.
Like his predecessor, Drake believes the town will gradually take on a larger role and will need to hire more staff to cover longer hours.
“I’ve been a volunteer for a long time. I want to be able to support the volunteers and try to help them with recruiting or whatever they need, but eventually, we’re going to have to go to more paid staff,” he said.