AUGUSTA – In a time when many local fire departments are struggling to get recruits, some state lawmakers are looking to fund an incentive program for volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel.
Speaking at a press conference Friday, Sen. Erin Herbig, D – Belfast, said of emergency responders, “they risk their lives every day to protect ours in our small towns. They deserve better.”
Sen. Herbig, the bill’s sponsor, was surrounded by chiefs of local volunteer fire departments as she announced the bill.
The bill would allocate $2.5 million to an incentive program, based on a point system. The thousands of volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel in Maine would accrue points for attending meetings, trainings, and responding to calls. Upon retirement, their total points would determine a cash award.
“We are not paid,” said Liberty Fire Chief Bill Gillespie. “This is a bill just for the volunteers, and the ones that you see behind me, a lot of them are taking time out of their day…to be here to support this bill.”
A public hearing on the bill was held Friday morning, to which Sen. Herbig said there was no opposition. According to her, similar incentive programs already exist, in part, in 40 other states.
In Maine, legislation was passed for the “Length of Service Award Program” but it was never funded. Those for the bill believe that’s a problem, especially for rural areas depending on volunteer fire departments.
“I’ve heard from a number of folks across Waldo County that they have lost their local fire department because there were not enough volunteers, and their home insurance rates have gone up,” said Sen. Herbig.
The details of the incentive program will be tailored to each department, but officials said they have allocated about ten dollars per point.
The co-sponsors of the bill come from both sides of the aisle, and include lawmakers who are also fire chiefs themselves. They hope an incentive can help recruit the next generation of firefighters.
“As you look around you can see the age of a lot of these guys, we’re paying it forward. We’re not going to see much benefit from this…it’s for the future,” said Rep. Tim Theriault, R – China, who is also the chief for the China Village Fire Department. “If we don’t do it we’re going to lose a valuable asset that we have.”
Next up, the bill will have a work session before it can go to the full legislature.