A year after enacting new incentives to address a first responder shortage, Belfast is nearly at full staff in the police and fire departments.
In October, the City Council approved the hiring of three full-time police officers and one full-time paramedic/firefighter. That leaves the police department with just one opening and the fire and ambulance department with two.
Belfast is not alone in the battle to fill public safety staff openings. Police departments, fire departments and emergency management services agencies across Maine report issues with recruitment and retention. Meanwhile, the number of local and county law enforcement officers in Maine dropped by 6 percent from 2015 to 2020.
The ongoing shortages can also cause a domino effect, Belfast Police Chief Bob Cormier said. With more staff openings, departments need officers to work more shifts with longer hours which can lead to burnout and, in turn, more resignations and openings.
Belfast decided in November 2021 to address the shortages head on. That’s when city councilors voted to increase pay, boost benefits and hire more full-time professional paramedics and firefighters — rather than volunteers — in order to fill the openings on its roster.
The city shifted that focus to the police department in April. Belfast ramped up its marketing efforts, began offering law enforcement officers $20,000 hiring bonuses, and incentivized current officers to help fill openings with $2,000 recruitment bonuses, Cormier said.
Fire Chief Patrick Richards said the fire and ambulance department has also changed its scheduling methods so firefighters and paramedics have more balanced, sustainable hours that are planned out a year in advance. Before, scheduling was less predictable, blocks of days off were inconsistent and shifts were longer, Richards said.
Cormier and Richards both agree the city is on its way to achieving its goal.
Cormier said when he started as Belfast’s police chief in May, one of his first priorities was to get the department back to a full staff of 14 officers.
“They’d been down some positions for a while and you could tell that the staff were getting tired,” he said.
By September, Cormier said the police department had 15 to 20 qualified applicants for five openings. Belfast’s Maine Drug Enforcement Agency officer is now the last position the city needs to fill.
In the fire/ambulance department, the specific numbers haven’t changed. Richards said due to retirements and resignations, there are currently two vacancies at Belfast’s fire and rescue department — the same as a year ago.
But Richards said the fire/ambulance department has tracked their success in how many current staff members they’ve retained, rather than how many hires they’ve made.
“It’s really about trying to keep the people that we have because there’s so many different opportunities out there available in so many departments that are offering much more money,” he said.
Without these changes, Richards said the department could have been down even more staff.
A similar retention strategy has also worked for the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, which went from six openings to a full roster.
“It’s taken a lot of pressure off the patrol deputies. … We haven’t had to call anybody in on mandatory overtime in months,” said Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton.
Now that the rosters are filling up, Cormier said Belfast Police Department can tend to the wider needs of the region. When there aren’t enough officers, time-sensitive cases such as domestic violence calls or car accidents take precedence over proactive policing like dedicated patrols in heavily trafficked areas, he said.
“When you’re full staff, you’re running on all eight cylinders, then you can do those extra sorts of things,” Cormier said.