Bangor Fire Department and Bangor Gas officials discuss a gas leak on Main Street in this 2015 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

The Bangor Fire Department will receive more than a half-million dollars to hire four new firefighters, allowing the department to expand its roster as it works to keep up with an abnormally large number of retirements.

The $515,000 federal grant — part of the Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response, or “SAFER” program — will pay for Bangor to increase its firefighting roster from 84 to 88, and funds positions that had been previously slashed from the city’s budget, Chief Thomas Higgins said.

The funding comes on the heels of a four-year hiring spree, as the department faces a steady string of retirements, Higgins said. In the late 1980s, the department hired a large cohort of firefighters at once — 16 in 1988 alone — and they’ve been gradually retiring over the past few years.

“At one point [I] knew by looking at the roster [that] there was going to be a significant time of change,” the chief said, referring to a few years ago when he saw a large number of people becoming eligible for retirement around the same time, which occurs after 25 years of service.

“Since 2014, we have hired 28 more employees,” he said. The department will bring on another seven rookies Sept. 4.

The constant hiring at the fire department differs from staffing problems plaguing the police department across the street.

Since 2014, the police department has lost a third of its officers, but many were younger staffers who left for better paying or less grueling jobs at other agencies or outside the field of law enforcement. Finding enough qualified people to fill those police jobs has been a constant struggle for the police department.

But Higgins said Thursday that he’s seen a steady pool of good applicants for the fire department, even if the hiring pool has shrunk since he was hired in 1990.

“We’re pleased overall — with their education, their backgrounds and things like that,” Higgins said.

An open position will draw maybe 40 candidates — not 200, like it did in the early 1990s, he said.

But today’s candidates have been more experience and demonstrated a better understanding for what the job entails, he said.

More of the applicants applying today are already licensed EMTs, the chief said, noting that medical calls constitute about two-thirds of the department’s calls. “So they have some education, some background in the field. It’s either medical, or they’ve been a volunteer somewhere,” he said.

“Not all would agree with me on this, but it’s my opinion that years ago, there was a tremendous number of people applying, but they didn’t have a background in the fire service,” or emergency medical care, he continued.

The Bangor Fire Department handles about 10,000 calls a year, the chief said. The grant money announced Wednesday will add an extra person to each of the department’s four rotating crews.

Additional staffing will reduce overtime pay the department spends to ensure that each crew meets a minimum staffing level of 18 people, he said. That number can fluctuate to 22 people when the department isn’t down positions — which can be due to retirements, sick leave, injuries or vacations, he said.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.