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Help Wanted: Committed, well-trained firefighters sought
ORIENTATION — Thirteen firefighters from across Oxford County attend Firefighter I and II training orientation at the West Paris Town Office April 1. According to West Paris Fire Chief Norm St. Pierre, Firefighter I and II certification is the highest level of fire training Maine currently offers.
OXFORD COUNTY — Local fire departments are always looking for on-call members, especially those who are willing to run into burning buildings, reported Hebron Fire Chief James Trundy.
"The need for additional members is reaching a critical stage," Trundy said Monday.
According to Trundy, the Hebron Fire Department is in need of "structural firefighters" trained to enter burning buildings. It is, however, also looking for members who can assist in other activities that require less training.
The need for firefighters isn't a recent concern, Trundy said, and it is not unique to Hebron.
"It's a perennial issue," he said.
Trundy has been the fire chief in Hebron for more than 10 years and a shortage of well-trained firefighters has been an issue for as long as he can remember.
Fire departments across Oxford County have been facing a shortage of members, mainly because people are too weighed down by other life priorities; they simply don't have the time to dedicate to the job or receive the proper training, Trundy said.
Hebron, and every other town in Oxford County (aside from Rumford) are not full-time departments, Trundy said.
While he would like to, Trundy said he is not currently seeking full-time members because it would not fit into the department's budget. Firefighters are currently per diem only, he said.
He said hiring full-time firefighters in Hebron could cost anywhere between $30,000 and $40,000 a year per person. "One [full-time] person would wipe out my entire budget," Trundy said.
Trundy said the department, along with others in Oxford County, are looking for people who are willing to commit to the rigorous training required, which he believes may be a deterrence for some people wishing to join.
Training standards have become more rigid over the years, Trundy explained.
Firefighters from across Oxford County will attend Firefighter I and Firefighter II classes at the West Paris Town Office for the next five to six months.
After all, "people need to know what they're doing and how to do it," Trundy explained.
On Monday, 13 local firefighters attended training orientation at the West Paris Town Office, moderated by West Paris Fire Chief Norm St. Pierre and Walter Morris of the Maine Fire Service Institute.
According to St. Pierre, Firefighter I and II pro-board national certification is the most advanced firefighter training that Maine currently offers.
Just as actual firefighting is dangerous, fire training can be dangerous, Morris told the trainees. He said while it's rare, firefighters have even been known to die during training exercises that sometimes mirror real-life fire scenarios.
Training is a major factor in reducing the number of firefighter deaths and injuries and improving the overall effectiveness of the department, Morris said.
During the training, firefighters will be working with hydraulic rescue tools, ladders, and doing live firefighting, including vehicle fires, structure fires and live liquid propane gas fires.
The purpose of the program, which includes a written exam on 37 chapters of a textbook and hands-on exercises, is to help firefighters become safe and effective in their line of duty and to acquire the knowledge to complete the Maine Fire Service Institute practical skills end test, Morris explained.
Trainees will also learn how to don and doff a level B (HazMat) fire suit, stretch hose lines and apply foam on a combustible liquid fire using an in-line foam eductor.
According to Morris, NFPA standards get updated every five years.
"When the standards change, the curriculum ... has to change," Morris said. He explained that five years ago, to receive Firefighter I certification one needed first responder awareness level training, and to become Firefighter II, one needed to complete training in Hazardous Materials Operations.
"Now, HazMat response has become such an important part of our job, you now need HazMat operations [training] for Firefighter I [certification]," he said.
"It's a challenge," Morris told the firefighters. "It's not a cake walk," he cautioned, about the training.
Trundy said he currently has one firefighter from his department participating in the training. In addition to the group at Monday's orientation, he supposes more people may be interested in participating but scheduling conflicts can make it almost impossible.
Joining the fire department is a "big commitment," Trundy said. There is at least 50 to 60 hours of training one needs to complete before responding to an emergency, he explained.
In addition, the fact that the longtime firefighters the community has depended on for years are getting older means their ability to do certain tasks, like battling a structure fire for hours at time, is declining.
"The members are not getting any younger and we need additional members in order to effectively operate," Trundy said.
Currently, the Hebron Fire Department has 12 active members, and two of them joined just recently, Trundy said.
"It seems that we gain a couple and lose a couple," he said, because of the intense training involved. He points out that interior structural firefighting is hard work.
"We need young people that can do that," Trundy said, of fighting structure fires. He said, according to NFPA standards, it takes 20-25 people to effectively battle a structure fire.
In 2012, Hebron responded to nine structure fires, some of them as mutual aid. Trundy's sense, however, is that more people may be interested in joining if the department had more calls to respond to.
He said the department responds to less than 50 calls a year, many of them for fire alarms or downed power lines. While he admits it is "not exactly glamorous," he says there is still a need for help.
"It can be a real struggle," Trundy said. "All the departments are struggling for membership."
Trundy encourages those interested in joining the department to contact him at 966-2070 or the Hebron Town Office, 966-3284, for more information or to fill out an application.
CHECKING GEAR — West Paris firefighter Jason Sciortino checks firefighting gear during orientation of Firefighter I and II training at the town office April 1 to make sure that it meets Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) criteria.