WALDO — While many towns struggle to staff their volunteer fire departments, Waldo’s (pop. 795) boasts 13 men and women ready to serve when needed to fight fires, assist at vehicle crash scenes or deal with other emergencies. That number is up from just three firefighters at this time last year.

When Brian Walker was elected fire chief at the 2021 town meeting, outgoing Chief Bob Cartier became his assistant. Together with Deputy Chief Jake Hepner, who had stepped down when Cartier became chief, they constituted the entire Waldo Volunteer Fire Department.

Why the musical chairs? “It’s an overwhelming chore,” Walker told The Republican Journal, likening the job to that of Sisyphus, condemned by Zeus to push a boulder up a hill over and over. “They did their time; now it’s my turn.”

The chief decided to try something new to attract volunteers. He reached out to some former members of the department and told them, “We’re going to have a new culture.”

“In EMS they call it a ‘just’ culture,” he explained. “You look at building the system so that everybody has a better experience.” He described his plans, promised training, said they would have meetings twice a month, “and they bought in.”

Two other men had looked at the department before but decided they were not interested. He persuaded them to take another look and they joined. “With a couple of others, I became a thorn. … Eventually, with some persistence and tenacity, they came in.”

Spouses followed. “My wife is a good example,” he said. “I said, ‘I need your help,’ and she joined. Then the wives of other members came on board.”

Getting some new equipment “made a big difference, too,” Walker said. “People want to take the job seriously and have an impact on the community.” He applied for and got two grants that covered most of five new sets of personal protective equipment. “We had to buy boots and gloves,” he said.

“Putting in time and effort, saying I’m going to achieve stuff, then going out and achieving it — people wanted to support that.” His crew did that in big and small ways — from turning out for 80% of their calls, a significantly higher percentage than many departments can boast — to voluntarily mowing the grass around the Fire Station so the town wouldn’t have to pay for it.

Budget needs for 2022-23

Although Walker has been researching and applying for various grants for his department, many of them require a town contribution, and that can be a sticking point. The Select Board has to juggle those with other town grant applications, chief among them high-speed internet for all residents.

Walker turned back his $2,000 stipend for the 2021-22 fiscal year, but paid Cartier and Hepner $300 each for their ’21-22 volunteer efforts. His departmental compensation request for the next year totals $9,000. Other municipalities are now, or are looking at, paying their volunteers, and Walker’s 2022-23 budget proposal calls for restoring his stipend and compensating all department volunteers, payable at $20 per hour to a cap of $600 per person per year. That would cover not only their time, but also their gasoline, he said.

Underfunded for years in Walker’s opinion ($11,000, including the chief’s pay, last year), the Fire Department needs to get on a regular schedule of maintaining and replacing equipment to ensure the safety of its firefighters and their ability to do their jobs, he said. To that end, for the coming year, the chief has requested roughly $18,000 for equipment, maintenance and operations, which includes:

  • $1,000 for fuel.
  • $5,823.60 for equipment testing and maintenance, following the generally accepted (and in some states mandated) practices established by the National Fire Protection Association for safety.
  • $3,000 to replace a non-working light bar on a fire truck that will not pass inspection without it.
  • $2,700 for one set of turnout gear for a firefighter (one female firefighter has no gear).
  • $2,256 for one new 1 3/4-inch 600-foot hose (according to NFPA, hoses should be replaced on a 10-year cycle; some of Waldo’s date back to the 1970s).
  • $1,060 for two pagers and amplified pager bases (for Cartier and Hepner).
  • $390 for six firefighter flashlights.
  • $1,339.17 for other equipment and supplies.

On the floor inside the Waldo Fire Station are the backpack and yellow tank of a 33-lb. 1997 Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus unit that straps to firefighter’s back. On the chair is one of 10 2002 units with a lightweight (23.8 lbs.) composite cylinder gifted in January to Waldo Volunteer Fire Department by another Maine department that was upgrading. The newer units have built-in safety features, like PASS alarm and buddy breathing. Photo by Carolyn Zachary

Possible funding source: a cost-recovery program

To help fund the department’s needs, Walker has been pressing the Select Board to establish a fire and rescue cost-recovery program that would bill homeowner’s and auto insurance companies for fire and emergency responses to vehicle crashes, structure fires and other hazardous events. He said Searsport, Freedom, Thorndike, Frankfort and West Frankfort fire departments, among others in Maine, have established such programs, and he drafted an ordinance for cost recovery in Waldo.

Select Board Chair Kathy Littlefield forwarded the draft ordinance to attorney Bill Kelley for review. At the March 7 Select Board Meeting, Littlefield reported that Kelley said the ordinance “was basically written OK,” but was uncomfortable with the lack of specificity in one section. He recommended the town consider replacing that section with more specific language adopted by the town of Cornish in its ordinance, she said, and added that she would get a copy of that document.

Meanwhile, Walker has attended several Select Board meetings to discuss Fire Department funding. The board recently met with a Maine Municipal Association representative and was told yes, they could spend the town’s American Recovery Program Act funds for municipal needs, with a few caveats. (The board had been planning to direct most of that money toward broadband.)

At the March 7 Select Board meeting, Littlefield said the board had made no decisions yet, but would meet with Walker for further discussion.

Walker was not present Feb. 21 when the Select Board last went over budget proposals. In response to some Fire Department reductions suggested by Shirley Caler, Tom Wagner said, “You’ve got a dedicated guy doing the best he can. Give him the tools he needs to work with.”