York Beach Fire Chief David Bridges talks about the importance of paying firefighters for responding to calls. Credit: Jill Brady | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Stephen Carr, president of the York Village Fire Department corporation, laid out the typical scenario for a volunteer firefighter at the York Village or York Beach departments.

“The pager goes off. You could be at work, so you’re leaving work and not getting paid while you respond,” he said. “You get in your vehicle, using your own gasoline. There are family costs and physical costs. You’re making a lifestyle sacrifice to help your fellow citizen.”

That is why he and firefighters in both departments are asking voters to approve Question 7 on the May ballot, which would create a $100,000 fund to pay minimum wages to volunteer firefighters who respond to calls.

“No one is becoming a firefighter to be rich,” said Carr. “We just would like to see it not cost us money.”

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York and York Beach are the last two departments in their immediate area not pay firefighters who respond to calls. Smaller departments like Eliot’s pay $12 an hour, while South Berwick pays $11 to $16 an hour; Kittery, $14.40 to $15.48 an hour.

Town Manager Steve Burns initially sought $50,000 for the fund, but firefighters made a successful pitch to the Budget Committee to double the amount. Carr said York Village firefighters responded to 1,301 calls in 2017, representing 5,466 call hours. Were they paid minimum wage of $11, that would amount to $60,126. Last year, Beach firefighters responded to 900 calls, said York Beach Fire Chief David Bridges.

Under the scenario devised by the fire departments, rank and file firefighters would be paid minimum wage; officers would start with 5 percent above minimum wage and the highest ranks would receive 5 percent more than that.

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This money would be paid only when firefighters respond to a call. However, Village Fire Capt. Paul Balentine said there’s a reason officers will be paid at a slightly higher rate.

“Officers have more responsibility,” he said. “They are integral to keeping the firehouse running. We have ancillary functions. I test hose and gas meters, and I do fire inspections as well. These are not emergency response functions per se, but they support that mission.”

Paying a wage to the volunteers is just fair, said Village Chief Chris Balentine and Bridges. Training to become a Firefighter 1 and 2 in Maine is an intense commitment, they say. Firefighters must attend 240 hours of training over a six-month period. While the department pays for this, there is time away from family life and travel time to training.

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“To put someone through all that time, effort and knowledge, some might say, ‘Why would I do that?’ The pay becomes the incentive,” said Balentine.

Both chiefs also saw this fund as a way to retain their force and encourage new members. While the Village department has 60 volunteers on its roster, only 20 to 30 are involved, consistent members; for the Beach, 40 are on the roster and half can be counted on to respond.

“We’re getting by, but we could use more active people,” said Chief Balentine.

Most calls are not active fires, but more mundane events like fire alarm or malfunctioning smoke detector calls. Both chiefs say they have no problem attracting firefighters to an all-out fire, but all the calls need firefighter attention.

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“Many, many times there’s nothing going on,” Bridges said. “These guys are driving their own trucks and spend their own time, and that’s no fun. That’s happening again and again. So if someone is sitting at home and a fire alarm call comes in, they could say, ‘OK, I’m getting my gas paid for. I’m not doing anything right now. I’ll go.’ If we can get them to go to that initial call, this incentive will encourage that.”

“We have quality folks, and we need to hang on to them,” said Paul Balentine. “We do well with recruitment. It’s the retention that’s the problem.”

Firefighter Dan Gile said he believes the stipend would be “huge” for the volunteers. Although he intends to make firefighting his career, “for people who want to be in the fire service in general, it’s hard to consistently give and give and give. These guys are waking up at 2 a.m. to go on a call when they have to be in work the next day. At least they’ll be getting something for their time.”