Originally published by Tony Hallett of the Lincoln News
HOWLAND – Though there are no immediate plans to form a fire district, the joint committee comprised of representatives of both Passadumkeag and Howland continue to both explore logistics of the long-term project, as well as short term needs to protect the citizens of both towns in the event of an emergency.
“It’s going to be a long road,” Passadumkeag Selectman Todd Rogers said. “A big hurdle is grants the district may not necessarily be qualified for.”
Rogers, who is on the committee that is made up of selectmen from both towns as well as firefighters, said that work on the project continues, but there were a lot of financial and legal aspects that need to be considered before the towns form a central district for fire
“It almost becomes like a marriage,” he said.
One of the aspects is insurance coverage for town employees. Currently, firefighters are insured through the Maine Municipal Association. Since firefighters have joined both departments, both towns are paying the insurance for the same person, meaning the insurance company is collecting twice per person.
Howland Fire Chief Josh McNally, who along with Passadumkeag Fire Chief Nick Rossignol began the exploration of a potential joining of the two towns emergency services, said his department is reaching out to the MMA to see if there is a way to align the insurance costs better. He said the department is also exploring switching to a private carrier to see if that will save the town money.
“We don’t want to duplicate services,” McNally said. “The idea is to share people and be cost effective.”
“We are looking for cost savings with an increased level of service,” he said.
Other questions facing the committee was who was credited as the responding town when responding to an emergency, and how to have multiple towns working as a single department when the towns involved each had its own form of government. That question
was raised because Passadumkeag has a board of selectmen and a town clerk, where Howland has a town manager.
McNally said one of the things discussed was forming a steering committee, comprised of members of both towns, that would oversee the operation of the department and its singular fire chief.
“It’s more like a regionalization than a district,” Rogers said.
Last month, Rogers and McNally both reported that regardless of the formation of a fire district or not, the towns are working on a better mutual aid agreement. Passadumkeag is also in the process of updating its ordinance that governs the fire department, a document
that was written in the mid-80s.
“If (the district) does not work, we are still looking at a better mutual aid agreement,” Rogers said.
“We are trying to get both ordinances the same,” McNally said.
The fire district project, as well as a more comprehensive mutual aid agreement, seek to address a nation-wide issue of dwindling enrollment in fire departments. It is estimated that nationally two people out of every 400 join a municipal fire department. The Howland and Passadumkeag departments together cover an area of approximately 3,500 people, which includes towns like Enfield that do not have their own department and contract with Howland. Currently, Passadumkeag has just three firefighters who are residents of the community, with 16 additional members being residents of Howland and Greenbush.
With national enrollment trends at an all-time low and with increased training requirements made by state regulation, without a better mutual aid agreement, fire district or members from surrounding communities, Passadumkeag’s department may not be
sustainable in the near-future.
“I love that the enrollment is up,” Rogers said about the effort of the two chiefs and the cooperation of the two communities. “I don’t want to stop that momentum.”