Lawmakers could give tax credits or state health insurance to entice more people to volunteer.
China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault hopes that measures being considered by legislators will help provide enough incentive to attract more volunteer firefighters and allow departments to remain fiscally afloat.
Theriault, who’s also the District 79 state representative, is a member of the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission, which includes both legislators and those involved in Maine fire protection, including two fire chiefs and six firefighters.
Theriault said that over the last three months, the commission has brainstormed ideas that would create support systems and incentives that aim to remedy the decline in volunteer firefighters, which is creating a dangerous situation for many of the state’s fire departments.
“There were a tremendous amount of ideas that were brought about,” he said last week. “Not all of them were good, and not all of them are going to go through the (Legislature). But hopefully the Legislature can pick through and steer-point a few really good ideas and make them happen.”
In March the Morning Sentinel reported that on top of crunched budgets, small departments in western and central Maine have been seeing a decline in the number of volunteer firefighters for the last 10 years and the shrinking rosters are diminishing the departments’ ability to provide a critical public safety service.
In March, statewide fire officials were reluctant to call the condition of Maine’s small fire departments a “crisis,” but Theriault was quick to call it just that in his recent interview with the Morning Sentinel.
“It’s at a crisis,” Theriault said. “There has been zero change.”
The volunteer China Village Fire Department has 22 volunteer firefighters on its roster, but of those, Theriault considers only 13 of them “active duty,” meaning they regularly are able to respond to calls and attend department meetings.
With fewer volunteers, a department might not be able to get enough manpower to respond to a call to put out a fire before the structure is lost because the initial responders must wait for additional firefighters to come from other towns to safely assist.
To create more incentives for people to become volunteer firefighters, the commission is recommending that the Legislature consider providing volunteers with workers’ compensation coverage, tax credits at the state level, eligibility for state employee health insurance programs, forgiveness of student loans, and retirement benefits.
The commission is also recommending that the Legislature assist in providing more support for small departments by establishing a firefighting training facility, funding grants for municipalities and their fire departments, funding a statewide database for personnel, and establishing another fire marshal position.
Theriault said that two bills, L.D. 164 and L.D. 500, that passed the Legislature last session but were not funded will be reintroduced during the upcoming session.
The Maine State Federation of Firefighters proposed L.D. 164, which would have the state set up a financial rewards program and deposit money annually for firefighters to receive when they retire. Theriault, along with House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, co- sponsored L.D. 500, which would allow municipalities to give small incentives such as property tax breaks to volunteer safety responders, including firefighters and EMTs.
The Fire Protection Services Commission submitted its recommendations to Eves this month. Theriault said it might take a culture change to reverse the declining interest in volunteering, but he hopes that with support from the Legislature incentives to volunteer can start to regenerate that interest.
“It’s not going to be a whirlwind change. Nothing is going to make people realize they need to start volunteering. That’s a cultural change that somewhere slipped by the way, and we need to generate that back somehow,” Theriault said.
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