Belfast City Manager Erin Herbig, right, tells Belfast Fire and Ambulance employees Alicia Prescott, left, and Terry Cook about the city's new initiative to pay its workers more and endeavor to hire more people to be first responders. "I think we've been holding on by a thread," Prescott said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Like many Maine municipalities, Belfast is struggling to staff its fire and rescue departments. But the city is hoping a shift away from a volunteer-focused model to a more professional one will help it shore up its lacking numbers.

The city is upping pay, boosting benefits and looking to hire more full time first responders, while backing away from its part-time, per diem model. While other Maine communities are offering emergency workers pandemic bonuses such as one-time hazard pay, the changes Belfast is making are permanent ones.

“The council does not shy away from challenging issues,” City Councilor Mary Mortier said Thursday. “We have determined we want to be leaders in terms of addressing our need for firefighters and emergency medical technicians.”

Fire Chief Patrick Richards believes the changes will make the city a more attractive place to work for prospective employees, who in the past have generally walked away after they learn about the pay, the schedule and the retirement package.

“I’m really hoping now that the city is investing in us, and the rest of it will follow,” he said.

Belfast Fire Chief Patrick Richards speaks during a press conference announcing the city’s new initiative to pay workers more and offer a better schedule and retirement package. “This incredible initiative means a lot to our department,” he said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Right now, the city of 6,700 people employs five full-time paramedics and one full-time firefighter-emergency medical technician. There are two vacant full-time positions now, a paramedic-firefighter and a firefighter-emergency medical technician, and more that may be created down the line, City Manager Erin Herbig said.

“We are trying to build our service and expand it,” she said. “It’s really exciting. We have new energy, and we want to get as many people in the door as we can.”

In order to attract and retain more first responders, the city council this week voted in favor of two initiatives. One is to encourage part-time paid volunteers to spend their 12-hour shifts at the fire station, a move that officials hope will build camaraderie and lead to more people applying for full-time positions.

The other, which was announced Thursday, is to increase the pay for full-time employees by 15 percent and offer a starting wage of $24 per hour. The city will also work on offering full-time employees, who already have health insurance, a better schedule and a more robust retirement plan.

Officials are betting this shift will allow the city’s emergency services to grow even during a first responder shortage that has taken a toll on departments all around the state and nation.

If the city has a solid emergency services department, it may eventually be able to expand its services to nearby communities that are struggling to staff their departments.

“We believe that as we move forward into the future, there is going to be a stronger need of regionalization,” Mortier said. “We think this is going to be very much more important sooner rather than later.”

In the past, the city’s fire department was run with a lean budget and a strong reliance on local volunteers who would keep an ear out for the emergency siren.

“When you heard the siren go off, the volunteers would jump in their trucks and go to the station,” Mortier said. “The world has changed. Now there are so many people who work outside their own community. You can’t get the same volunteers you used to get to answer calls.”

Initially, the money for the salary increases will come from the city’s portion of federal American Rescue Plan funds. In the future, the city will seek more state and federal grants to support its emergency responders, as well as through the municipal budget.

The investment in first responders means a lot to people such as Alicia Prescott, a paramedic who has worked full-time for the city for seven years.

“I think we’ve been holding on by a thread, just hoping we’d see some changes around here,” she said. “This helps us feel valued in our community. It’s really good to feel valued. This is a very high-stress job, and it takes a special person to work here.”