WALDO — When Brian Walker bought his house here in 2017, he did not intend to become an emergency responder. Now the 40-year-old self-employed real estate agent is the town’s fire chief and also volunteers on ambulance services in Brooks and Belfast.

His passion for emergency response work is apparently contagious: since he took over as fire chief in January, his crew has grown from three to 13 through the use of the department’s Facebook page and word of mouth. Also in that time, Walker has gotten the department two grants for turnout gear valued at around $20,000. That is almost twice his department’s $11,000 annual budget.

He gave credit to previous chiefs for doing “a fantastic job of playing the cards they were dealt,” acknowledging that running a small-town fire department is not easy. For example, he said, when the crew was very small it was not worth the enormous physical effort of conducting a training exercise like a hose drill. Now that he has a larger crew, he is holding some type of training or education every month.

Some sessions are more book-based or involve watching a video; during others, volunteers practice firefighting operations. Even something that seems simple, like directing traffic, requires training in the prescribed procedures in order to be done well, Walker said. “We’ve gone from ‘Let’s just kind of wing it’ to ‘There’s a science to this.'”

In fact, directing traffic is more dangerous than fighting fires, he said, noting that it is the number-one cause of on-the-job deaths for first responders.

Regarding daytime coverage, he said he is fortunate enough to have several crew members who are either self-employed or retired and therefore free to attend calls during the workday. He also has one member who works at Robbins Lumber in Searsmont; the company not only allows him to go to calls, it pays him when he does. Walker mentioned that there was a bill in the Legislature earlier this year that would have required employers to release employees who are emergency responders for calls, but the measure got watered down so the requirement could not be enforced.

While he feels his department is “moving in a fantastic direction,” there is still room for improvement, he said, particularly in the area of replacing old equipment. Some of Waldo’s hoses were made in the 1970s.

Walker himself got into this work literally by accident. In the first few months after he came to town, there were two crashes near his house, and he helped out at the scene both times. After that, he talked with the previous fire chief to see if he could do something like bring coffee to the crew, but ended up getting recruited to become a firefighter. He said he felt “it was a good way to serve people and give back.”

After a while, he noticed he was hearing Brooks Ambulance miss calls because no driver was available. Since he now had some experience driving firetrucks for Waldo, he offered to drive the ambulance for Brooks. The next thing he knew, he was taking EMT training, and later got his advanced EMT certificate.

At that point, he needed to go further afield to find mentors, so he volunteered on the Belfast Ambulance crew as well. He has found fellow firefighters and EMTs a dedicated and compassionate group who are “fanatical about helping other people.” They must be — Walker said even though he receives a stipend from each service he works for, he spends more on gas to respond to calls than he gets paid. Part of the reason for that could be that when he took over as fire chief in Waldo, he signed the $2,000 stipend over the town to pay for fire department equipment.

With real estate values surging as a result of out-of-staters moving in, Walker hopes the town will be able to increase his department’s budget. He said Waldo is one of the last towns in the county that does not pay emergency responders at least minimum wage. However, he believes that if he were to ask his crew whether they would rather have a raise in pay or money for new equipment, they would prefer the equipment.

He said he feels lucky to be able to do this work and, even though he feels a bit old to be going back to school, he is thinking about getting his associate degree in paramedicine. “I’m very addicted to it.”