Full-time fire chief needed in Bridgton, study says

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton needs a full-time fire chief, but that’s not the biggest news contained in the long-awaited Fire Department Study by the Public Safety Strategies Group.

The study found “a distinct feeling of us vs. them” that is hindering efforts to decide the future direction of the department. Some rank and file members, discouraged by recent budget cuts, are low on morale and motivation, spotty on attending required trainings or responding to fire calls, the study found.

In fairness to the 50-member department, the study noted that “many members believe the current structure does not reflect the community needs. Members expressed that it is increasingly more difficult to recruit and retain members, answer calls during the day, while maintaining the administrative functions and required paperwork on a volunteer basis.”

Selectmen were expected to meet and discuss the findings at a Wednesday workshop.

“Animosity between the town members, the Board (of Selectmen) and the department hinders the ability for the department to run efficiently and professionally,” the study found, in polling some community members.

“There appears to have been a decrease in morale due to budget cuts, and communication issues between the board and the department over necessary funds and the use of those funds,” the study found. Restoring morale needs to be “of primary concern” if Bridgton is to recruit and retain enough volunteer firefighters to keep the current system viable.

In addition, the study found weaknesses, mostly from lack of funding, in the department’s ability to conduct fire prevention education, perform fire code inspections and be up-to-date on emergency preparedness.

Fire Prevention

• The study recommended paying a stipend for someone in the department to provide community outreach. That person would have a plan to conduct fire prevention education in the school and community.

Code Enforcement

• The current, limited part-time fire inspector can’t meet the growing demands of businesses and property owners on eight hours a week, many people responding to the study said. There should be more enforcement than there is of fire safety laws, especially to make sure housing units are safe and properly outfitted. “This position would benefit from additional hours,” the study said.

Emergency Preparedness

• Grants should be sought to increase the hours of the town’s emergency preparedness coordinator, to enable the coordination of tabletop drills and updating yearly plans. The town budget has no line item for updating the plan each year as required by the state, yet the person responsible needs to attend trainings and have support in order to make sure all town departments are ready in case of a big emergency.

Training

• Recordkeeping is lacking in terms of reviewing training requirements every six months, as well as hours spent on weekly training for storms, dry hydrant pumping, ventilation and water rescue. The data is not downloadable in a usable form, so it’s not practical to create spreadsheets, the study found. Some members attend more training than others. “For example one member attended 45 classes for a total of 126 hours of training, while another attended two classes for a total of six hours,” the study found. In addition, PSSG had “a major concern” about the low number of members (between two and 13) that are trained to operate the various tanks, engines and other fire apparatus.

Philosophy

• The study found the department “has a positive organizational culture” when it comes to civic-mindedness, yet “however, there is a bit of inertia when it comes to moving forward.” PSSG also stated, “Negative aspects of the culture appear in the sense of entitlement portrayed with the requests for new equipment, while not being willing to foster positive relationships with the elected officials, fund raise, or promote the department through high levels of community engagement.”

Operations

• Each year the department responds to 350 calls for service, mostly vehicle crashes and building fires. In 2014, five members responded to more than 100 of those calls. Despite the fact that at some calls there are too many people, and at others, not enough, the study found a reluctance within the department “to rotate call times or create more specific groups — in part due to the worry of not having enough members present if the nature of the call changes or intensifies.” As a result, “policies and procedures are out of date,” the study found, adding that a full-time fire chief could greatly help in managing the department and keeping administrative requirements up to date.

Apparatus use/planning

• Policies need to be developed to ensure the proper equipment arrives on scene, so that trucks and engines are not needlessly deployed, the study found. The department didn’t provide a maintenance log, so PSSG could not make definitive statements on equipment replacement. The town needs to create a capital improvement replacement plan for replacing fire vehicles, the study found. Some equipment, such as thermal imaging cameras, are getting old, and there are vulnerabilities with the radio system, with poor reception in several areas of town.

Staffing/workload

• “The administrative workload appears to be hampering progress in the department,” the study stated. At the same time, there is “a significant amount of loyalty by its members,” with 30% of them having more than 25 years of dedicated experience, and 23% less than five years of experience. “Many senior members may soon be retiring from volunteering,” the study warned, making recruitment efforts all the more crucial. The study found that over half of the members respond to 10 or more calls a month. “Members are vocal with their concern that coverage during the day is harder and harder, as members work outside the immediate response areas,” the study said. Members with local jobs are typically the ones who cover daytime calls the most frequently. The study recommended hiring a full-time fire chief with hours spread evenly throughout the week, and implementing a schedule “with other paid administrative staff working during the week” as certified drivers of fire apparatus.

“All those involved felt that a full-time fire chief is a necessary addition in order to have the best working relationship between the town and the department and to correctly run a growing agency,” the study said. Many of those responding to the study said they felt residents would support the expense as long as the need was clearly communicated.

Next steps

• The study recommended a joint meeting with fire department membership “to discuss the tension between the two and create a plan for moving forward.” Then hiring procedures should be established.

“While a completely full-time department is still some time away, incremental steps will ensure administrative work is completed, provide ways for the department to increase its services delivery, and the added staff might help with recruitment of additional volunteer members.”

 

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