It’s eerie to walk through the Thorndike Fire Department.

Several handmade posters with photos of smiling children and firefighters hang on the walls in the meeting room. “Thank you Thorndike Vol. Fire Dept. from the ‘future volunteer firemen,’” reads a poster given to the department in 1992 by Unity and Knox Cub Scout troops.

Evidence of past members is everywhere in the Thorndike Fire Department. Near the storage room above the station, a board with dozens of patches from different departments stands propped against the wall. The largest commemorates the fallen first responders of 9/11. Photo by Vanessa Paolella/The Maine Monitor

The picture and helmet of a beloved former fire chief, now passed, is mounted above the chalkboard in remembrance.

Outdated gear is set against the walls of the garage. Some equipment no longer meets industry standards.

Piles of previously used turnout gear lay below a small plastic Christmas tree in storage, with dozens of boots neatly arranged on a table in the corner.

A pinboard covered with numerous patches from different fire departments sits on the floor, propped against a wall. The largest patch commemorates the fallen first responders of 9/11.

There are ghosts around every corner, on every wall. It’s not the past volunteers who haunt departments like this one, but the evidence of what the places once were.

Mass resignation

In January 2019, four Waldo County emergency response officials wrote a letter to the town of Thorndike criticizing the department’s leadership and alleging its actions endangered the lives of other firefighters.

“We owe it to the residents of Thorndike and mutual aid towns to have trained and trustworthy first responders assisting them in their time of need,” the letter read.

At the time, the Thorndike fire department was not a municipal department but an association. Officers were elected by members of the fire company, but the town controlled their finances.

After selectmen received the letter, the assistant fire chief, who was named as a concern for his leadership and past conduct, stepped down.

Department members felt he was unfairly targeted. They threatened to quit if the town refused to reinstate him and release $85,000 from the association’s truck and equipment replacement fund to update the department.

When an agreement could not be reached at a contentious Select Board meeting in February 2019, all but one of Thorndike’s 28 volunteer firefighters resigned, citing unsafe working conditions due to outdated equipment.

One month later, residents overwhelmingly voted to replace the Thorndike Volunteer Fire Company with a legally designated municipal department, giving the Select Board more control.

There is little evidence that Maine’s growing firefighter shortage has led to widespread department closures — at least, not yet. Instead, anecdotal accounts point to a proliferation of “ghost departments” that operate with only a handful of responders.

No one knows how many fire departments in Maine are teetering on the edge. Ghost departments are active, but their ability to respond to emergencies is exceedingly limited, pointing to an unsettling possibility that the state’s firefighter shortage is even worse than officials think.

To respond to everyday incidents, these departments often rely on mutual aid partners for assistance, stretching neighboring personnel-strapped departments thin.

It’s not just fires. Firefighters are frequently the first and primary responders to a wide array of situations, especially in rural areas. They regularly deal with vehicle accidents, provide emergency medical care, clear blocked roadways, and staff search and rescue efforts.

Losing just one or two key members could leave these understaffed, volunteer fire departments with no choice but to close, eliminating crucial but often overlooked public resources.

Second in command, now first

At 33, Thorndike’s interim fire chief, Tim Veazie, has faced more difficulties than most men his age.

Perhaps it’s those experiences that have given him the courage to lead a fire department others have abandoned.

Veazie grew up in the fire service. His father, aunt, and uncle were members of the Levant fire department in Maine. One of his earliest memories is a Christmas party at the old fire station.

As a teenager, he became a junior member of the department.

When he was 18, Veazie enlisted in the Army, then was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. He returned to the U.S. nearly a year later after compounding incidents left him with permanent damage to his knees and back.

Veazie was medically retired in 2013 after 8 1/2 years of service. Like many other veterans, he struggled with homelessness and his mental health following separation from the military.

He moved to Thorndike with his wife and children in 2017, where he again found himself surrounded by firefighters. It took little convincing for him to join the department.

Two years later, Veazie resigned with the rest of Thorndike’s volunteer firefighters. He returned to the department six months later.

“Upon the town meeting, some of the requests that we had asked for, since they were making an effort on their part to get what needed to be done, done, then it was on us in order to keep our word and (return),” he said.

Thorndike Interim Fire Chief Tim Veazie grabs a jacket and helmet from the storage room above the station. Piles of gear previously worn by former members of the department are stored here. GarrickHoffman/The Maine Monitor

Veazie is the fourth Thorndike fire chief in two years. After the previous chief stepped down, Veazie, as the next highest-ranking member, became interim chief in April.

No one else was willing to take on the role.

“I told the town that I will remain the fire chief for as long as they need me to be the fire chief, or until they find somebody better suited for the position,” he said. “I will, at that point, relinquish my position as chief, and I will step back into my shoes as second command.”

Veazie sees himself as the man leading men into the fire, not standing outside giving orders.

But with just five members and three firefighters, it may be a long time before he has the opportunity to do so.

To merge, or not

Earlier this year, the town of Thorndike approached Unity with the idea of merging their fire departments.

Under the proposal, Thorndike’s fire station would become a substation for the Unity department, and the town would pay Unity each year for coverage.

“It was, in my opinion, a last-resort solution used as the first option,” Veazie said.

According to Reginald Cunningham, a member of the town Planning Board and Thorndike Fire Department, the town did not go through with the merger for financial reasons. It would cost more to pay Unity to cover the town than retain its own volunteer fire department, he said.

While Selectman Jeff Trafton partially agreed, he said the situation was more complicated. The merger would have cost Thorndike more than the department’s current annual budget of roughly $35,000, but town residents would have benefited from improved service.

“Doing it the way we’re doing it now is cheaper, but I don’t want to continue doing it the way we’re doing it now,” he said. “We’re going to have to spend more money on fire protection.”

Trafton believes that regionalization is the future.

“Waldo County taxpayers are paying too much as a whole for their fire service,” he said. “If the towns could come together and form regional fire departments — it’s been done all across the country — we could all save money and we would all have service, 24/7.”

Can’t do without volunteer firefighters

As it is, the Thorndike Fire Department is barely hanging on. If it loses more than one or two of its five members, it will be forced to shut down, Veazie said.

“It would no longer be safe for us to try to operate as a fire department,” he added. “I am running with the five members that I have on my roster at the moment. I am running a bare-bones crew.”

Without mutual aid, the department would not be able to adequately respond to many calls, let alone serious emergencies.

“Thank God the other fire departments around us help us because if we have a house fire right now, we don’t have the manpower to fight (it). Those towns come over and help us for free,” Trafton said.

Recruitment is Thorndike’s primary concern, but replacing outdated equipment is a close second.

The Thorndike Fire Department is phasing out old equipment. “We have resources. The problem with most of the resources is keeping them up-to-date,” Interim Fire Chief Tim Veazie said. Photo by Garrick Hoffman/The Maine Monitor

Thorndike plans to start paying firefighters $13 or $14 an hour to respond to emergency calls, similar to neighboring departments, Trafton said. Thorndike currently has a stipend system: Volunteers receive between $200 to $300 annually; the fire chief receives $3,000 and the assistant chief, $1,500.

Trafton and Vealzie hope payment will encourage community members to join the department. The town is also working to purchase a new fire truck, a second initiative Trafton believes could boost recruitment.

This story, which was edited for space, was originally published by The Maine MonitorThe Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan and nonprofit civic news organization.