Using grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ellsworth and six surrounding towns are hoping to get more of something they’ve had a hard time finding in recent years: volunteer firefighters.
The city applied this past winter for the $1.2 million FEMA grant, partnering with the towns of Dedham, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Orland and Trenton in requesting the funds. If recruitment efforts are successful, the funds could be used to train and equip as many as 80 volunteer firefighters in the area over the next four years, according to Ellsworth Fire Chief Scott Guillerault.
FEMA approved the request, and on Monday the Ellsworth City Council voted to accept the funds. Ellsworth, which is the only one of the seven area municipalities to have a professional fire department with full-time, paid firefighters as well as volunteer firefighters, will administer the grant.
Guillerault said Monday that the department’s number of volunteer firefighters has been declining, as it has for municipal fire departments throughout Maine and nationwide. The city used to have mostly volunteer firefighters and just a handful of staff firefighters, but now it has 10 paid firefighters on staff — many of whom double as emergency medical technicians. Its volunteer roster has shrunk to about half a dozen.
“We’ve lost our volunteer base,” Guillerault said Monday. “What we have now for a volunteer force, we’re starting to age out. Ideally, I’d like to have 10 certified volunteers.”
Firefighting can be a significant commitment as training standards have increased over the years, and can be difficult to balance with jobs or family commitments, the chief said. But volunteers are crucial for small-town departments, he said.
The funds will be pooled by the seven towns to pay for recruitment campaigns online and in local media to help draw interest, he said. When volunteers apply, the grant funds can be used to pay for training and turnout equipment. It also will fund mandatory annual medical screening, he said.
The expense of screening, training and equipping volunteers is somewhere between $6,000 and $7,000 for each volunteer, with just the gear alone costing around $4,000 or $5,000, according to Guillerault. Turnout gear, which consists of fire resistant boots, pants, jacket and helmet, lasts for roughly 10 years, he said, and so could be used again for another volunteer — if it fits — if one decides to leave, he said.
As the towns incur these costs, they will submit reimbursement requests to FEMA through the Ellsworth Fire Department, the chief said. The city benefits by partnering with surrounding towns, which FEMA encouraged applicants to do, and through its mutual aid agreements with the towns. If Dedham recruits and keeps volunteer firefighters with the FEMA funds, those firefighters will be available to respond to fires in Ellsworth if needed, he said.
The grant is for four years, Guillerault said. If there is still money left in 2027, but the towns have made progress, it could apply for an extension in receiving reimbursements from the $1.2 million grant. If the towns use the entire amount before the four years is up, but can show good results for how it was spent, they can reapply for more funding, he said.