SKOWHEGAN — Fire officials in Skowhegan are contending with a staffing shortfall of more than a dozen firefighters and are struggling to find qualified applicants to fill the positions.

And Fire Chief Shawn Howard isn’t alone in facing such staffing woes. His counterparts in Waterville and Augusta, while not as short-staffed as Howard, say the number of applications they’ve received in recent years has dropped precipitously. The quality of candidates, with many having no firefighting experience, also has declined, they say.

Howard told Skowhegan selectmen last week that he has 15 openings in his department for call firefighters, who typically have other jobs and work on an on-call or part-time basis to respond to a range of emergencies or coverage needs.

“Historically we’ve had about 30 employees, that is a combination of call and full-time,” Howard told selectmen. “Right now we have 11 full-time and we’re down to six call guys. If you have an interest in becoming a firefighter or EMT come see me.”

Many fire departments struggle to recruit enough call staff, but officials say it’s worsened during the pandemic.

Howard cites a few other reasons for the drop in manpower: a competitive job market, a lengthy training process and the commitment needed to provide around-the-clock coverage.


He said his department will pay an hourly wage for a candidate to become licensed as an EMT and cover costs associated with training.

“We need people,” Howard said.

Although response times haven’t been affected, the chiefs say there’s been an increase in mutual-aid response. In some cases, the departments are paying more money in overtime to ensure adequate coverage.

Of the vacancies in Skowhegan, three are because of workers who resigned rather than comply with the state requirement that all health care workers receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

Howard added that as older firefighters are retiring, he’s “not seeing new, young people coming in.”

Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler has a roster of 15 full-time employees along with three new firefighter/EMT positions that were funded in this year’s budget.


“We’re not seeing the quantity of applications that we’ve seen in years past,” Esler said. “It does appear we are going to be able to fill those three additional full-time positions.”

Esler said his department has lost one full-time firefighter to the vaccine mandate as well as six call firefighters. Another full-time staffer also left recently due to child-care concerns.

Nearly 72% of Maine’s fire departments are run by volunteers, about 23% are mostly volunteers and 3% are staffed with career firefighters, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Augusta Fire Chief Dave Groder said his department has lost four full-time workers to the mandate. Unlike Skowhegan and Waterville, Augusta does not have volunteer firefighters.

“We’re short-staffed, but it doesn’t affect our operation, it just costs more money, because we have to fill those positions with overtime,” Groder said. “The applicants that are responding are slow to come in.”

Fire officials say they have to spend more of their time these days recruiting.


“We are competing with other businesses that are offering sign-on bonuses (and) $15- to $20-an-hour starting pay, without training,” Howard said. “I am trying to get those same people coming to me.”

Esler added that other factors are contributing to the labor crunch such as “low wages, inflation, competition with private-sector jobs who are paying more than they ever have” and the “demands on fire rescue and EMS.”

“The exposure to traumatic events certainly takes a toll and overall the workload that’s been created as a result of the pandemic has really contributed to increased mental health concerns with our workers,” Esler said.

Compounding the problem was the sudden shutdown of community college courses and other training when the pandemic hit, he said. “The paramedic and EMS programs that otherwise would have run to fill a supply of good, quality workers was essentially shut off.”

“We’re in the process of playing catch up,” Esler said.

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