BELFAST — At a press conference Nov. 18 at the Fire Station, the city announced an initiative to alleviate fire and EMS staffing shortages. The pandemic has magnified an issue that has caused difficulty for many stations in responding to emergency situations, City Manager Erin Herbig said.

City Council approved starting pay of $24 per hour for first responders with both firefighter training and EMS certification at its Nov. 16 meeting. The competitive wage is just the first step in the city’s initiative to solve staffing issues, according to Fire Chief Patrick Richards.

The city is working on two other plans to address the problem, including offering the Maine PERS C3 retirement plan to first responders and working on better scheduling to accommodate first responders, City Councilor Mary Mortier said at the event.

The median hourly wage for firefighters nationwide in May 2020, was $25.24, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The city currently has five full-time paramedics and one person with full firefighter and EMT certifications, Richards said. He hopes to add two or three new positions to the department. Pay for first responders varies depending on their level of training. The department can provide additional trainings for its personnel, he said.

Mortier said nothing is more important to the council than public safety and emergency services. “The council does not shy away from challenging issues,” she said. “We take them on head-first. And so we have determined that we want to be leaders in terms of addressing our need for firefighters and EMTs.”

She has heard about the difficulties facing emergency service stations in smaller towns, and if services need to be regionalized in the future, then Belfast, as the county seat, is positioned to fill that need.

Richards, who succeeded his grandfather as fire chief last September, said his department’s staffing struggles represent the reality of the service across the state. The council has developed a clear vision for the future of emergency services for the city and the region. “I’m excited and honored to be amongst the first municipalities to take major steps in that direction,” he said.

City firefighters and EMTs were at the press conference, along with City Councilors Brenda Bonneville and Paul Dean, and Mayor Eric Sanders.

Sanders commended the council for being proactive while others are being reactive. He also gave Richards credit for developing the vision to address this need after taking over the department.

“We’re laser-focused on making sure that our emergency workers are the best in the state, and to do that it’s gonna take time, money and training,” he said. “Patrick’s here now, he’s got a vision and it’s a good one, a damn good one, but it’s gonna take a little bit of time.”