BURLINGTON and HOWLAND – Officials in the two communities are on the verge of entering an agreement that will bolster emergency coverage for Burlington while allowing the town to maintain its fire department.
Burlington Fire Chief John Smith and Howland Fire Chief Josh McNally said Burlington town officials will now determine if the measure will require a town vote or if the governing body can accept the contract. The finer details still have to be submitted to the Maine Municipal Association as well, McNally said.
Both men spoke positively about the contract.
“We are to the point now, I don’t feel we can provide the service people deserve,” Smith said about his reasons for seeking an agreement with Howland.
He said a lack of manpower was the main reason for his decision.
Lack of manpower has been a systemic problem facing the Maine fire and EMS service, particularly in rural areas like Burlington. Training requirements for firefighters alone require multiple hours annually, time which most able-bodied residents with jobs do not have to put in. The cost of maintaining a department also can be costly for a sometimes dwindling tax base.
“Not every town can afford to have their own fire and Ems department nor should they,” McNally said. “Towns need to pool resources and leave the politics out of it so that they can provide services to the communities that they deserve.
“It doesn’t mean much to have emergency vehicles sitting in your town if there aren’t trained people available to respond to towns needs.”
Burlington will be able to maintain its department, and Smith will remain in charge for the town. Both McNally and Smith said this was an important detail for the community.
“The plan is John will still be in charge,” McNally said, stating Burlington will be a “substation” of Howland.
All of Burlington’s firefighters will continue to serve the town, and the fire station will remain.
“They will respond like always,” the Howland chief said. “We will just come along with them.”
Both McNally and Smith described the proposal as both low risk and non-committal, meaning either town could back out if it did not work. The agreement, if it is approved, will be the first of its kind in the area.
“It is important emergency service teams in rural areas come up with plans like this,” McNally said. “We need to come up with new ways of doing business.”
Howland is one of two full-time departments within the greater area, with Lincoln being another. Smith said he approached Howland because of McNally and the fact both the ambulance and fire service are run by one person. Lincoln contracts its ambulance service from East Millinocket.
“Things are much smoother when there is one person to deal with,” Smith said. “We had seen what Howland Fire had done and we were impressed with that.”
McNally would become the fire chief for Burlington for administrative purposes. Howland would likely lease Burlington’s vehicles as well.
The final cost of the agreement has not been announced yet, though McNally said it
would “certainly be less” than what Burlington taxpayers are paying now. No date has been set, either.
“It is not going to happen tomorrow, but I personally would like to see it happen as soon as possible,” McNally said.
“The reality is emergency services are int trouble, and really in trouble in rural Maine.”