Orono is hoping a new setup for its police and fire departments will help the town fill more first responder positions to address a situation that has left existing staff stretched and forced the town to rely on overtime.
Orono is turning to the new setup with its longtime police chief set to depart after next week and amid the continued difficulty — in Orono and across Maine — in wooing applicants for vacant firefighter and police positions. Police departments across the state have said they’re experiencing significant turnover and fielding fewer applications for vacant positions in recent years.
Orono police Chief Josh Ewing’s last day on the job will be Nov. 5, after serving eight years as chief and working for the Orono police for 22 years.
Rather than try to hire a new police chief to replace him, Town Manager Sophie Wilson opted for another path — placing the town’s fire and police departments under the supervision of a public safety director.
That director, Fire Chief Geoff Low, will be able to focus on recruiting more people for both agencies, but particularly the understaffed fire department, to relieve pressure on current employees and minimize the town’s spending on overtime, Wilson said.
Deputy chiefs in each department would oversee day-to-day operations.
“Municipalities are supposed to have great benefits and work environments, but we’re in a situation right now where people aren’t able to take advantage of those benefits,” Wilson said. “They don’t feel comfortable taking that vacation they’ve earned because doing so puts a big strain on their coworkers.”
Orono is looking to add to its fire department so there’s more flexibility and less of a need for firefighters to work substantial amounts of overtime.
The department has four shifts that need to have five firefighters each. But there’s currently minimal wiggle room with 23 firefighter positions in the budget, and three firefighters currently out on medical leave. That makes it difficult for current staff to complete training, go on vacation or satisfy other commitments that might take them off regular duty.
Wilson said the town will seek to add more staffing on each shift as it works on next year’s budget.
“The challenge will be that we still need people to apply for the jobs,” she said.
On the police side, three patrol positions are open, and an internal candidate is expected to assume the new deputy chief position, further complicating the staffing picture.
Yet the town holds no illusions that Low alone can solve recruitment challenges. For a variety of reasons, fewer people seem to want to work as police officers and firefighters, Wilson said.
But the town will do what it can when applicants come forward, she said.
“We’ll train. I think I’ve got some of the best trainers around,” Wilson said. “I think it is an opportunity for people to try something new and build on other experiences.”