Rural firefighters need realistic training standards

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Wednesday’s wind whipped up so much flame, we were forced to wonder what area fire department wasn’t fighting a woods or grass fire. Auburn, Lewiston, New Gloucester, Turner, Greene, Freeport, Durham and many other towns scrambled to answer calls. It was, Lewiston Assistant Fire Chief George Merrill said, a “highly unusual day.”

Unusual and frightening.

In Oxford County, for the first time in the county’s history, every fire department was called out to respond to a fire. The day was, for Bethel Fire Chief James Young, just awful.

The wind was so fierce, he said, it pushed fire over the trucks and over the firefighters.

The commitment to public safety displayed by local firefighters every day is enormous. On Wednesday, it was particularly notable and we applaud everyone who responded to a fire and all the others who helped support these firefighters, including the many local businesses that routinely permit volunteers to dash off to answer calls from their hometown fire departments.

On Thursday, Bethel firefighters were back out at Wednesday’s grass fires and found a dozen or so spots still burning. They will keep volunteers there until the fires are out.

That’s a big job for a department with too few volunteers to fight too many fires.

Mutual aid is ordinarily available from neighboring towns, but help gets thin when fires break out in surrounding towns, as they did Wednesday.

Yesterday in Lewiston, Fire Chief Paul Leclair interviewed four firefighter candidates. In Bethel, Chief Young isn’t so fortunate. He doesn’t have candidates knocking on the door. Years ago, the chief remembers a department with 45 volunteers and a waiting list for people hoping to join up. Today, he said he’s lucky to have 25 reliable volunteers and there’s no waiting list.

He blames the paucity of volunteers on the increasingly burdensome training requirements mandated by the state’s Bureau of Labor Standards.

“If the state would relinquish the demands on training,” Chief Young is certain volunteers would be plentiful. But the training requirements scare potential volunteers. There are just not enough people – who would be paid for time spent fighting fires – willing to devote 150 unpaid hours for basic training.

In Rumford, Fire Chief John Woulfe recently had to take 11 volunteers off his roster until they received additional training, leaving him short-handed. And, in Paris, four volunteers recently showed up for interviews and three of them left after hearing about the training requirements. Every department in every Maine town is looking for fire fighting help and few are getting it.

While the labor standards are mandated to protect firefighters, we may be at a point now where we’re sacrificing safety with too few firefighters in rural departments. Has the burden of the training requirements actually made firefighting more dangerous as the ranks diminish, leaving behind a small core to respond to the same number of fires as larger departments handled in years past?

We can’t say for sure, but we think it’s time for the Bureau of Labor Standards to call for public comment on the training requirements and review the standards with a critical eye toward making them manageable – and safe – for rural Maine.

In Lewiston, Merrill believes the standards are appropriate and reasonable. He wants every employee to be safe at work, and he’s right to want that.

But, in Turner Wednesday, where a woods fire sped down a power line corridor just off Route 4, there were so few volunteers available to respond that untrained passersby, without adequate fire safety gear, jumped in and grabbed hoses to help.

The aim of the labor standards is firefighter safety. Maine’s current situation, in which regular citizens feel forced to jump in harm’s way to knock down flames, is not safe and must be reversed.

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