BAR HARBOR – As the number of volunteer firefighters continued to decrease, community leaders on Mount Desert Island are taking proactive steps by beginning to discuss the future of fire protection.
“Our board of selectmen asked for a personnel analysis report a few months ago,” Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender said Wednesday. “They wanted to know where we are currently with staffing and where I predicted we will be in a few years.”
“We’re not getting any more volunteers coming in or getting very few and our resignation rate is increasing because everybody is beginning to age out,” he added. “So we have more people leaving than we have coming in so we need to look at the issue and hopefully come up with a solution in the short term and long term.”
Fewer and fewer volunteer firefighters, who must be trained to national standards, are signing up to fill the rolls. Jobs, family life, outside and other commitments are keeping them away, said Bar Harbor Fire Chief Matt Bartlett.
“It’s nothing new here in the island, it’s nothing new here in the county, state or national,” Bartlett said. “It’s a problem nationwide.”
Hiring more full-time firefighters is one option.
“But I also mentioned that one of the things we should be looking at or discussing is regionalization or consolidation,” Bender said. “It certainly needs to be on the table.”
The island’s four departments have been working and training together for years. Many are volunteer firefighters for more than one department.
“Consolidation doesn’t mean necessary becoming one department,” said Bartlett. “But what we can do as a collective group to improve services to the department because we’re all struggling with the number of firefighters.”
Bar Harbor Fire Department has 13 full-time and 13 part-time or volunteer firefighters. Mount Desert Fire has seven full-time and 13 part-timers. Both chiefs said they want at least 15 initial firefighters when responding to a blaze.
“Now, it’s taking all the island fire departments to do what one department used to do because we don’t have the firefighters,” Bartlett said. “So we’re grabbing more communities to come respond when we used to be able to do it ourselves.”