The Rockland and Rockport fire departments responded Friday night to a fire at the Brunswick Rooms boarding house on Main Street in Rockland. Credit: Courtesy of Rockland Fire Department

ROCKLAND, Maine ― To stave off an impending staffing crisis, Rockland’s fire chief says the city needs to reduce the hours firefighters work each week to be more in line with other fire departments in Maine.

At the Rockland Fire Department, firefighters work 56 hours a week presently. The chief would like to reduce that to a 42 hour work week, but to do so an additional four firefighters will need to be hired, a cost of about $312,000 more per year if approved.

Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock said the change needs to happen to attract more job candidates and maintain the roster of existing employees.

“If we don’t do something, and when I say now I literally mean now, I feel I’m going to lose more people. I’m going to lose people to these other departments that are again, working a better schedule, making more money,” Whytock told city councilors during a meeting Wednesday night.

The fire department currently has 18 full-time employees, including the chief and two full-time emergency service personnel. Rockland’s firefighters are also trained to provide emergency medical services. There’s also an on-call division that aids the department as needed.

About 40 percent of the department’s full-time staff are slated to retire within five years, and Whytock says recruitment efforts have been challenging in recent years due to the department not being competitive enough in terms of pay and hours worked per week. Without a change, Whytock said a staffing shortage is looming in as soon as six months.

“We’ve been seeing a glaring issue that has been coming for years, and we’ve been able to mitigate it for years,” Whytock said. “Unfortunately, I feel like we’re at the time where a change needs to happen and without a change […] I fear how public safety is going to look in the city.”

A growing number of Maine fire departments are converting to a 42-hour work week, Whytock said, which offers a more sustainable work-life balance. Nearly two dozen departments, including Bangor, Portland and Augusta operate on a 42-hour work week, according to Whytock.

Under Rockland’s current 56-hour work week schedule, firefighters work 24 hours on then 48 hours off. By converting to a 42-hour week, they would work a 24 hour shift, then have 48 hours off, work another 24 hour shift and then have 96 hours off, which averages out to about 42 hours worked in a week-long period.

Another issue that Whytock says is affecting department retention and recruitment is the relatively low starting wage of $16.36 an hour that the department offers. Other Maine fire departments pay between $19 an hour and $24 an hour, according to information provided by Whytock.

By adjusting to a 42-hour work week, Whytock said the department can increase the hourly wage to about $20 an hour without changing the weekly pay and affecting the department’s budget.

“Somebody that literally saves and does amazing things on a daily basis is making $16.36 an hour and that is the other big reason that we can’t draw any candidates up here,” Whytock said.

Rockland City Councilors seemed inclined to pursue Whytock’s request of adding four more firefighters to the department. That will require adding funding to the city’s proposed 2022-2023 budget this spring. If included, the funding will be available when the budget takes effect in July.

“For me, we’re just going to have to find that money,” Rockland City Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf said.