We must give back to our volunteer firefighters and first responders

By Sen. Erin Herbig | Apr 11, 2019

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure to attend over a dozen town meetings across Waldo County. It’s been a wonderful chance to get to catch up with friends and neighbors and get helpful insight into pressing issues at the local level.

Property taxes and access to emergency services have both been at the forefront, and they are directly linked. These services come at a cost to our towns, but they are essential to keeping our communities safe. In Augusta, I am working in partnership with local fire chiefs and emergency responders to keep these services available and affordable for our rural communities.

In Maine, about 93 percent of fire departments are either entirely or primarily staffed by volunteers, according to the Maine State Federation of Firefighters. And over the last several years, Maine has seen a significant decrease in the number of volunteers signing up to be firefighters, despite increasing demand for fire services.

Falling rolls have caused delays for fire services and increased insurance rates for homeowners who live further and further away from active departments. In my conversations with local volunteer firefighters, first responders, town officials and taxpayers, I have seen the negative impacts of this trend across Waldo County.

Recognizing this problem and hoping to strengthen recruitment and retention across volunteer fire departments statewide, I worked with a group of legislators to pass LD 164, “An Act To Establish the Maine Length of Service Award Program.” Length of Service Award Programs, or LOSAPs, award eligible volunteer firefighters and first responders a modest amount of money based on how long they’ve served that can be collected once they retire.

Perhaps more importantly, the LOSAP would provide Maine volunteer fire departments with a powerful tool to recruit the best volunteers and keep them over the long term. Once LD 164 was signed into law, a board was assembled to figure out exactly how our LOSAP would work. The board was appointed last year and has been at work ever since. Our own Bill Gillespie, chief of the Liberty Fire Department, serves as chairman of the board.

LOSAPs have been used across the country for more than 30 years in dozens of other states to help attract and retain volunteer firefighters and first responders. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the leading nonprofit organization representing volunteer fire and rescue services, has identified the nationwide problem that we’re also experiencing in Maine, and puts the problem in stark terms: “The volunteer emergency services are a longstanding tradition in the United States that often encompasses families generation after generation. Unfortunately, it is also a tradition in danger of weakening and possibly even dying out. Many fire departments across the nation today are experiencing more difficulty with recruiting and retaining members than ever before.”

According to NVFC, LOSAPs are one of the most crucial and prevalent ways of attracting and retaining volunteers: “Among the most important, widely used, and growing incentives for volunteers are retirement plans,” but, the organization notes, “The major problem that many departments encounter is where the communities or departments obtain the money to contribute to these plans.”

In Maine, the board we established with LD 164 has been laying the groundwork for our LOSAP, but like NVFC pointed out, it all comes down to whether we fund the program. Without funding, it will be another great idea that never got very far off the ground. With funding, we can create a meaningful and effective program to help revitalize fire departments across Maine.

This session, I’ve submitted a bill to provide that funding. LD 1014, “An Act to Attract and Retain Firefighters,” would bring this program to life, ensuring that our fire departments are sustainable for generations to come. Last week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee unanimously approved LD 1014, which now faces votes before the full House and Senate.

Maine’s public safety systems, communities and families depend on our often overstretched and underfunded fire departments, and we have neglected their needs for long enough.

The men and women who volunteer to fight Maine’s fires and respond to emergencies play an essential role in our communities. They leave their jobs and their families to provide this service. We should acknowledge the value of those years of dedicated volunteer service without placing undue strain on local resources. LD 1014 will do just that.

Let me be clear. This is a bill about rural Maine and our state’s refusal to do much about the fact that we’re struggling to recruit and retain firefighters for our communities. For far too long, we haven’t provided the resources to properly recruit, train and retain these heroes among us.

I grew up going to the Belmont Fire Department for chicken barbecues with my uncle because he was a volunteer firefighter, and I continue to go every year now with my own children. Our fire departments are more than emergency responders. They are our relatives, neighbors and integral members of our communities. They deserve better. By rewarding these heroes for their service, we can build not only stronger fire departments, but stronger communities, a stronger state and a stronger nation.

Democratic Sen. Erin Herbig is serving her first term in the Maine Senate, representing the 26 towns of Waldo County. She lives in Belfast.

Sen. Erin Herbig with fire chiefs from across Maine, including Liberty Fire Chief Bill Gillespie, on her left.
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