FARMINGTON — Farmington Fire and Rescue responded to 62 calls last month. The average number of firefighters who responded was seven or eight. During weekday hours, two of those were probably per-diem firefighters, Deputy Chief Clyde Ross said after a joint meeting between selectmen and Budget Committee members Wednesday night.

A longtime firefighter, Ross, who is also chairman of the Budget Committee, said he understands the commitment of volunteering for his town.

Farmington Fire and Rescue has 25 firefighters on its roster, down from 40 in 2000. Half of those are older than 50, fire Chief Terry Bell told the joint meeting of selectmen and Budget Committee members.

“The average turnout per call, seven, eight people is not efficient,” Bell said. “It’s not enough people. We rely heavily on mutual aid.”

The joint meeting was held to review the Fire Department’s budget request, consider the amount each would recommend for the department and discuss options for the Fire Department’s staffing issues. 

Selectman Andrew Hufnagel thinks people’s perception to adding per-diem firefighters is one step closer to a paid department, Town Manager Richard Davis said. Hufnagel was absent.

“It’s (meant) to avoid going that way,” Davis said. “It’s a step toward preserving the volunteer fire department without hiring full time.”

Bell checked with Skowhegan and Rumford departments, both paid. The cost for a 56-hour week is about $61,000, including benefits, he said.

“It’s expensive,” Bell said. “You’re not hiring one or two. Skowhegan has seven or eight and Rumford nine on staff. We’ll probably eventually be there but we’re not there yet.”

Bell brought three per-diem proposals to the meeting, including hiring two firefighters to work  seven days; three firefighters working seven days; and three firefighters working five days a week and two on Saturday and Sunday. Each shift would be eight hours.

When asked, Bell recommended the third option at a cost of $87,059. The amount includes $10,000 needed for per-diem work from January to March 31.

The Board of Selectmen agreed with the chief, endorsing a proposed budget of $380,056, an increase of 20 percent, or $62,714, for the department.

Although five of the nine members of the Budget Committee attended, two were firefighters and abstained from voting. Five votes were needed so they agreed to meet Thursday evening to vote on the proposed budget.

The Fire Department’s initial budget request was $411,828, an increase of $94,486 over last year’s appropriation.

The department has two per-diem firefighters working five days a week. Bell sought to more to work seven days a week starting April 1, raising the per-diem budget from $43,099 approved last year to $113,586.

An additional $10,000 needed to be added to that, Bell said Wednesday because the amount for per-diem coverage from January through March was accidentally left out.

The staffing issue for volunteer fire departments is being felt throughout the state, not just here, Davis said, recommending a television news report last week on volunteer fire departments. The video report has since been posted on the town website under the Fire Department, Bell said.

Along with fewer volunteers, fire departments are struggling with the availability of people during the day, aging members and an increase in calls, Davis previously said.

Selectmen Chairman Ryan Morgan and Davis have contacted a couple other towns to start discussions on manpower issues and the potential for a regional department. Collaboration between towns is a slow process; it won’t happen overnight, he said.

Budget Committee member and firefighter Stephan Bunker offered a copy of a 2006 regional report in which Farmington, Jay, Livermore, Livermore Falls and Wilton departments discussed collaboration. The issues then were the same as they are now, Bunker said.

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