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Small towns struggling to maintain services

10:41 PM, Feb 17, 2014   |    comments
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LIMERICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Many communities across the state are struggling to handle an increase in calls for help with fewer resources and first responders willing and able to answer the call.

Aside from the largest cities in the state, most fire and rescue departments in Maine rely on a mix of paid staff and volunteers. Thin budgets have kept many towns from adding staffing, while the number of volunteers has declined sharply over the past couple of decades for a variety of reasons - from the increased training required to be certified to the volume of calls to societal changes.

In the town of Limerick, the situation has left a core group of just a handful of volunteers to handle the majority of the towns' rescue calls. Stephen McLean, a 38 year veteran of the department, estimated he went on nearly 300 of the 400 calls the Limerick Fire Department received last year.

"With 400 calls that we had this year, we only have right now, four actually licensed medical people. Well, that is a lot of calls for four volunteers," said McLean.

He said the call volume is quickly burning out the few volunteers that remain in the community. He said when you factor in that is actually costs volunteers like himself money to respond - gas for his vehicle and lost time at work, fewer people are willing to pitch-in, attend the training sessions and leave their families in the middle of the night to help others in need.

The situation has gotten to the point that small towns like Limerick are calling for mutual aid from larger communities in the area for calls the used to be able to handle, adding to their workload and in essence, taxing the resources of those surrounding communities.

"We can't keep going the way it is, because there was an instance a month ago where we didn't have any medical people in town and we had three calls during that day, all of which Waterboro, thankfully, covered for us," said McLean. "We're relying on them way too much, and it is costing them a lot of money."

Waterboro Fire Chief Matthew Bors estimates 100 or the nearly 1000 calls his department responded to last year were to provide assistance to people outside of Waterboro.

"It certainly is an impact to our community," stated Bors. "No question that the taxpayers of Waterboro have taken the initiative to fund to have adequate coverage."

Chief Bors has met with other chiefs in the area to see what can be done to remedy the situation. He said there is no one easy answer.

"We are struggling with that. I think those challenges will continue to face us, and the communities that are nearby," he said. "Somehow they need to work together."

He is quick to add that when Waterboro calls for assistance from Limerick, they are always there to respond with as much help as they can provide.

"They are able to pull their truck together when we need them, and they know, it means a lot to them and we have respected the relationship we've had with them," he said.

In Limerick, members of the department have begun circulating a petition asking residents if they would support voting on adding some per diem staffing to the department to help ease the burden being placed on volunteers, and the departments in their neighboring communities.

"With the volume of calls increasing all the time, at some point it snaps," said McLean. "That is going to be a terrible day when we just can't get a rescue to somebody."

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