An Old Town firefighter puts away gear after a call in downtown Old Town, Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Maine fire departments are moving toward shorter workweeks for first responders under new union contracts. 

Orono and Old Town are two of five communities where firefighters recently have approved contracts that reduce their workweek from the traditional 56 hours to 42. The reduction is part of an effort to create better work-life balance for first responders and attract new firefighters to the field, according to the Professional Firefighters of Maine union. 

The change comes amid a struggle across Maine and nationally to recruit qualified firefighters and retain current staff.

While firefighters in Orono, Old Town, York, Waterville and Gardiner will work — or are already working — shorter weeks under their new contracts, they won’t take a pay cut because their hourly rates will change accordingly, according to Ronnie Green, a retired Bangor firefighter who is 4th district vice president for the firefighters’ union.

“You’re still taking home the same amount of money,” Green said.

York and Waterville firefighters’ new 42-hour-workweek will start this July. Orono and Gardiner both switched from 56- to 42-hour weeks last July. Old Town firefighters started working a shorter week as of Jan. 1.

Throughout the summer last year, the Orono Fire Department struggled to fill key vacancies, forcing firefighters to work overtime regularly. One week, a firefighter who was supposed to work 42 hours worked 120 due to the low number of available staff in Orono, Town Manager Sophie Wilson said last August

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For several years now the fire department has operated at minimal staffing levels of about five firefighters per shift. Last July, the department added a fourth shift to distribute the amount of work and hours among more firefighters.

In August, the Orono Town Council also approved creating a new “floater” position for the fire department to relieve the burden on other staff members. Additionally, the department has filled out its roster in recent months. 

In Rockland, fire Chief Chris Whytock in January called on the city to reduce the hours firefighters work each week to be more in line with other Maine fire departments to prevent a staffing crisis. 

Whytock said he wanted to reduce his staff’s workweek to 42 hours, but to do so the city would have to hire four additional firefighters.

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...