WEST PARIS — The West Fire Department’s recent Facebook post asking for volunteers generated lots of shares and a good bit of interest.

The West Paris Fire Department has issued a call for new volunteers to join the department. Submitted photo

Unfortunately, so far all the respondents live outside the response area, but Fire Chief Troy Billings did not disregard them. Instead, he sent their contact information to other chiefs with departments within striking distance of the recruits.

All rural fire departments are fighting the same battle of recruitment and retention. Billings knows that a volunteer firefighter working in another town may still help his department at some point.

“It’s tough to get people in and retain them,” he said. “Between work and commitments, they’re busy. There is a lot to it, especially for small departments. There is a lot of training.”

The term volunteer is something of a misnomer. West Paris pays for the training of its firefighting recruits, and each crew member is paid by the hour, with rates starting at $13.50 an hour for adults working in support roles, between $14 and $15.25 for firefighters and department officers.

“Not everyone needs to be the person going into a burning building,” Billings said. “We need people for different things – they can direct traffic. Some people just want to drive the trucks. A firefighter needs 85 hours of training to carry a fire pack. To become a firefighter I or II they have to complete up to 247 hours, and they can earn as many as six college credits with Southern Maine Technical College from their certification. “There are plenty of jobs, and we always train to the level our volunteers want to work at.”

Billings started volunteering with the West Paris Fire Department when he was a teenager in 1993. He was nominated and voted as chief five years ago.

“I was sort of going down the wrong path,” he recalled of the lead-up to becoming a junior firefighter. “The chief at the time took an interest and mentored me, and I’ve had many since then. I’m lucky – I got to learn watching old-school methods of firefighting. It was a lot different back then. Guys would be fighting for their fire pack on calls.”

Those days are gone, as people have aged out or retired and fewer recruits are stepping up to volunteer. All towns are shorthanded and scratching for help.

“My son Brandon, who is 17, is our only junior firefighter right now,” Billings said. “And I am very proud of him. He has logged more than 200 call hours this year, one of the most active in the department.”

During his tenure as chief, Billings has set a couple of major goals each year to improve the department.

“We’ve standardized all our equipment so everyone uses the same gear,” he said. “We have enough air packs so that everyone who wants one gets one. We’ve worked to improve our response time. We are fortunate that many of the town’s volunteers live close to the station. Most nights we can have a truck ready to go out the door within five minutes.”

Coverage during the day, when volunteers are at work, is a bigger challenge. Billings has hired one person to man the station during 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week.

Other changes involve key tasks and responsibilities. Any volunteer who requires a physical to do their job is expected to have it done in December to cover the following year. He has designated January for everyone to have their equipment fit-tested for compliance to state standards.

“Making our responsibilities all done together makes it much easier,” Billings said. “The Fire Department has things it’s required to do, doing it at once is much more efficient.

“Years ago, West Paris was considered to have the black sheep fire department. We had a lot of things to fix and we’ve made improving it a major priority,” he said.

The West Paris Fire Department has need of volunteers for a variety of roles. Submitted photo

Among the positions that volunteers may choose:

Driver. Firetruck drivers are exempt from holding a Maine commercial driver’s license, but the West Paris department provides training to drive all its vehicles.

Pump operator. Volunteers who want to operate water tanks will be trained on each truck and complete a 16-hour course.

Firefighters. There are three levels for volunteers, each requiring specific training. Anyone over the age of 40 is required to have an annual physical.

Support roles. A trained crew is needed to hook up and roll up fire hoses, set up ladders and make sure firefighting equipment is set up and working.

Traffic details. Any volunteer over the age of 18 can be in charge of directing or detouring road traffic.
“One thing about being a member of your community’s fire department is that even, if a person leaves, they have joined for life,” Billings stressed. “Once a person has earned their badge, they will always have a place with the crew.”

Anyone interested in joining the department should call Billings at 207-674-2288 for more information. Recruits should be over the age of 16, live within 15 miles of the department and pass a standard background check.


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