A fire truck races down Congress Street in Portland on Thursday Dec. 3, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The volunteer firefighters in Levant responded to fires in neighboring Stetson for years. The Stetson Fire Department was fairly inactive, and Levant Fire ended up taking the lead on many calls from its smaller neighbor to the west, Levant Town Manager Scott Pullen said.

Levant officials viewed that as unfair, so they approached Stetson about three years ago with a potential solution. Every year Stetson would send Levant $40,000, the same sum Stetson typically spent on its independent fire department, and Levant would be responsible for responding to any fire in Stetson.

The arrangement took effect last May after public hearings and votes in both towns. While a Stetson Fire Department may exist on paper, it is not active, Pullen said. Stetson officials did not respond to a request for comment.

While support was not unanimous at the time, Pullen said, he has not fielded a single complaint since the arrangement took effect.

Faced with fewer volunteers, often shrinking populations and the high cost of running their own fire departments, small communities across Maine are turning to regional arrangements to make sure their residents have firefighters who will respond in a worst-case scenario.

The regional arrangements often look like Stetson and Levant’s, in which one community contracts with another for fire coverage. In other cases, communities join forces to create regional fire departments. The Epping Volunteer Fire District in Washington County, for example, responds to fires in Columbia and Columbia Falls, and the Mapleton-Castle Hill-Chapman Fire Department covers the three nearby communities in Aroostook County. Meanwhile, the Machias Fire Department provides fire coverage for Northfield and Whitneyville, two of its smaller neighbors.

Having built a new station in 2010 and with a robust volunteer crew of 25-30 people, Levant Fire is well equipped to cover Stetson, according to Pullen. He said a few volunteers from Stetson had since joined the force as well.

“It’s just astronomically expensive to keep yourself up to speed in these smaller towns,” said Pullen, who noted that volunteers are also hard to come by. “To do it safely, it just requires a lot of time and a lot of money.”

While Maine has about 500 municipalities, it has 433 fire departments, according to the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association. Four in five do not have full-time fire chiefs, likely meaning that their departments are all volunteer. And the pool of volunteer firefighters across the country has shrunken. The U.S. had fewer volunteer firefighters in 2018 than it did in 1986, despite having a population that had grown by 87 million people, according to a 2020 report from the National Fire Protection Association.

Elsewhere in Penobscot County, the Corinna Fire Department has long taken calls in neighboring Exeter. Exeter pays Corinna $25,000 per year for the coverage, Exeter Town Manager Hayley Lancaster said.

The arrangement has generally worked for Exeter, whose population is about half Corinna’s size. By relying on another town for fire coverage, Exeter can avoid the logistical challenges of running a fire department while ensuring that emergency responders are available for its residents.

The only problem that has come up over the years is increased homeowners’ insurance rates, which factor in the distance to a town’s designated fire department.

Some residents have suggested that the Corinna Fire Department cover western Exeter and the Corinth Fire Department cover the eastern part of town. But such a system would be too complex, Lancaster said. And either way, both departments usually end up responding to fires in Exeter.

“We don’t have a lot of fires here in Exeter,” Lancaster said. “We’re so small, it wouldn’t make sense for us to have a fire station.”