Easton fire crews work to put out the blaze in the M & M Welding & Sheet Metal and Pete's Performance Auto at 32 Industrial Street in Presque Isle on Feb. 3, 2023. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

Two Maine firefighters organizations hope to enroll volunteers from the state’s more than 400 departments in a new retirement program by the end of this year.

Three quarters of the state’s fire departments are run by volunteer fire chiefs, who along with other volunteers, are not eligible for retirement benefits because they do not work as full-time firefighters, according to the Maine Fire Chiefs Association.

If the Maine Legislature’s Appropriations Committee funds the $2.5 million price tag in LD 588, An Act to Promote Public Safety and Retain Essential First Responders by Funding the Maine Length of Service Award Program, volunteer firefighters, who must receive training just like their full-time counterparts, will be able to receive retirement benefits.

With the number of volunteer firefighters diminishing and fewer younger people joining up, the new legislation is one effort to attract more people to volunteer service, especially in rural areas, and to retain the firefighters already working.

“We’ve seen for years the steady decline in volunteerism in the state and it affects the fire and EMS industry quite heavily,” said William Gillespie, legislative liaison and first vice president for the Maine Fire Chiefs and chairperson for the Maine Length of Service Award Program board of trustees.

volunteer firefighter recruitment strategies

Volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel, paid-by-call volunteers and per diem volunteers would be eligible for the Length of Service retirement program.

The number of volunteer firefighters in Maine has declined by half since the 1980s, when the total was approximately 12,000 people, Gillespie said. There are 433 fire departments in Maine and 338 are run by volunteer fire chiefs, according to the Maine Fire Chiefs Association.

The average age of volunteer firefighters across Maine is at least 40 years old, he said. And although the Length of Service retirement program has some money, only about a dozen departments have joined so far this year. He estimated that 8,000 volunteers would be eligible to join the program.

The Maine Fire Chiefs Association and the Maine State Federation of Firefighters have been collaborating with most fire departments across the state for the past five years to get the retirement bill before the Maine Legislature. LD 588 has passed and awaits Appropriations Committee funding before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.

“This program is beneficial because we can leverage the people that are already trained,” said Fred Brewer, trustee for the Damariscotta Fire Department. “It reinforces the things we think are important, which is attendance at calls and trainings.”

Brewer also serves as a member of the Length of Service Award Program board, which is appointed by the governor’s office.

maine’s volunteer firefighter shortage

The program awards fire and EMS volunteers service credits for attending meetings, training and calls in the community. Individual towns or counties can contribute to the retirement funds as well, Brewer said.

A volunteer firefighter can be awarded 100 service credits in a year, amounting to about $1,000 to be added to the person’s retirement account, which can be accessed starting at age 60.

A minimum contribution of $300 over a 10-year period can accumulate to $36,000 when the retirement age is reached, Brewer said. 

Volunteer firefighting is also a feeder program for the full-time firefighter positions. Damariscotta, for example, is getting eight new members who began as volunteers, Brewer said. Plus it rewards the firefighters who have to go farther afield to respond to emergencies, he said.

The Length of Service Program passed the Legislature in 2015, but went unfunded. So the state’s fire groups petitioned then-Gov. Paul LePage to appoint a board of trustees so they could set it up to receive funding. 

The award program was set up three years ago with $500,000 from the Appropriations Committee. Last year, the Maine Fire Chiefs successfully petitioned Gov. Janet Mills for $1 million, and the Appropriations Committee approved another $500,000. 

Approximately $1 million has been used to hire an administrator for a five-year contract and $500,000 was invested in the portfolio for the retirement account. But the program has remained underfunded for the need, the state fire organizations said.

maine’s volunteer firefighter shortage

Of the $2.5 million requested in the current legislative session, the retirement account would receive $2 million and $500,000 would go to managing the accounts, which is roughly how much the annual cost will be.

“It’s creating a retirement program and giving a little bit back to the folks who are giving so much to the state of Maine,” Gillespie said. “It is very similar to a 401(k) in that the money that’s collected on the individual’s behalf would be invested.”

It gives volunteers recognition for the time they have spent training to work on a fire crew. The state of Maine is taking the steps for the first time to acknowledge and reward people who choose to be first responders in their communities, said Greg White, fire chief for the Easton Fire Department.

“Volunteer fire departments are struggling to fill their numbers with people who are willing to be trained,” White said.

Other states have a similar Length of Service Awards Program, but like Maine, receive no federal funding.