January 10

Farmington Fire Department asks for 30 percent budget increase, more paid staff

The department has lost nearly half its on-call firefighters since 2009, and more scheduled staff is needed to ensure there are enough in an emergency.

By Kaitlin Schroeder kschroeder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FARMINGTON — The Fire Department is asking the town for a 30 percent budget increase, up almost $95,000 from last year, so it can hire more day staff.

click image to enlarge

SAVING HOMES AND MONEY: Farmington Fire Department Chief Terry Bell is seeking a 30 percent budget increase to pay for more staff.

Staff File photo by David Leaming

Fire Chief Terry Bell said the department has lost 18 volunteer firefighters since 2009, reducing its roster to 25, and more scheduled staff is needed to ensure there are enough workers.

“Our numbers have dwindled,” Bell said, adding that another member resigned this week.

The town is now budgeted to pay for two per diem firefighters, or a rotating list of two firefighters at a time working five days a week. Per diem workers receive no benefits and provide more certainty that there will be enough firefighters in an emergency.

Under the new budget proposal, there would be four firefighters working every day, two in the mornings and two in the evenings, seven days a week.

The total budget request is $411,828, 30 percent more than the $317,342 appropriated to the department last year.

Farmington firefighters that are not working per diem are on-call and are paid by the hour when they respond to calls on a wage scale based on experience. Last year, the department reported more than 5,000 man hours spent responding to calls.

Like many fire departments considered volunteer departments, on-call staff are still compensated for the time spend serving the town. Firefighters are also paid an annual stipend, depending on rank. The firefighters get a $277.90 stipend each, lieutenants get $748.42, captains $748.42 each and deputy chiefs $2,119.85 each. The chief received a $56,078 annual salary.

Out of the 18 that left in the past four years, Bell said some died, moved away or took jobs out of town. Others said they don’t have time to complete the more than 200 hours of training required to be a volunteer firefighter.

Town Manager Richard Davis said a survey of 13 similar sized departments found most fire departments had more paid regular staff and higher budgets.

“There were 10 budgets that were higher, in most cases considerably higher, than Farmington’s,” he said.

Fairfield Fire Department, which also has about 25 volunteers, runs on a $720,000 budget and has seven paid full-time personnel including the fire chief. At least two paid staff are there 24 hours a day, said Fairfield Fire Chief Duane Bickford.

For the same reasons cited by Bell, Bickford said there department frequently loses members and needs to recruit more.

“At times there’s large turnover,” he said, though he said for the past few years membership has been relatively stable.

Bickford said the Fairfield department relies on mutual aid, but its also important to have paid members available.

“Just because you have the numbers, doesn’t mean that many are available in the day,” he said.

The Fairfield volunteers are also paid by the hour for responding to calls and responded to 1,283 calls in 2013.

Davis said the selectmen and budget committee reviewed the request for the increase on Tuesday. The budget committee is expected to make a recommendation on Jan. 22 and the selectmen will be making their own recommendation on the measure at an undetermined date.

“I expect they will be giving it some thought ... Both seemed receptive to the increase,” he said.

The final call on how much to fund the fire department will go to the voters March 24 at the annual Town Meeting.

Budget committee Chairman Clyde Ross will be abstaining from the vote because he is a member of the fire department and is not allowed to vote on his own department’s budget.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252kschroeder@centralmaine.com

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