After struggling to find emergency service personnel, Belfast is trying something new

BELFAST, Maine – Like many municipalities in Maine, Belfast is struggling to staff its fire and rescue services. But the city hopes the shift from a volunteer-driven model to a more professional one will help fill its gaps.

The city is increasing wages, increasing benefits and looking to hire more full-time first responders, all while moving away from its part-time per diem model. While other communities in Maine offer rescuers bonuses in the event of a pandemic, such as a one-time risk bonus, the changes Belfast is making are permanent.

“Council does not hesitate to take up challenges,” City Councilor Mary Mortier said Thursday. “We have determined that we want to be leaders in terms of meeting our needs for firefighters and emergency medical technicians.”

Fire Chief Patrick Richards believes the changes will make the city a more attractive place to work for potential employees, who in the past have typically walked away after learning about the salary, schedule and job. pension plan.

“I really hope now that the city invests in us, and the rest will follow,” he said.

Belfast Fire Chief Patrick Richards speaks at a press conference announcing the city’s new initiative to pay workers more and provide better hours and a better pension plan. “This incredible initiative means a lot to our department,” he said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

The city of 6,700 currently employs five full-time paramedics and one full-time emergency medical technician. There are now two full-time vacancies, a firefighter and an emergency medical technician, and more that may be created at a later date, said city manager Erin Herbig.

“We are trying to develop our service and expand it,” she said. “It’s really exciting. We have new energy and we want to attract as many people as possible.”

To attract and retain more first responders, city council voted this week in favor of two initiatives. One is to encourage paid part-time volunteers to spend their 12-hour shifts at the fire station, a move that officials say will build camaraderie and lead to more people applying for full-time positions.

The other, which was announced Thursday, is to increase the wages of full-time employees by 15% and offer a starting wage of $ 24 an hour. The city will also work to provide full-time employees, who already have health insurance, a better schedule and a more robust retirement plan.

Officials are betting the change will allow the city’s emergency services to thrive even during a shortage of first responders that has wreaked havoc in state and nation departments.

If the city has a strong emergency service, it may eventually be able to expand its services to neighboring communities who are struggling to staff their services.

“We believe that as we move forward into the future there will be an increased need for regionalization,” Mortier said. “We think it’s going to be much bigger sooner rather than later.”

In the past, the city’s fire department operated on a tight budget and heavily reliant on local volunteers who monitored the emergency siren.

“When you heard the siren go off, the volunteers would jump into their trucks and go to the station,” Mortier said. “The world has changed. Now there are so many people working outside of their own community. You can’t get the same volunteers you had to answer calls.

Initially, the money for the salary increases will come from the city’s share of federal bailout funds. Going forward, the city will seek more state and federal grants to support its emergency responders, as well as through the municipal budget.

Investing in first responders means a lot to people like Alicia Prescott, a paramedic who has worked full time for the city for seven years.

“I think we hung on to a thread, just hoping we would see some changes here,” she said. “It helps us feel valued in our community. It’s really good to feel valued. It is a very stressful job, and it takes a special person to work here.

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