February 16

Bill Nemitz: Feds ride to rescue of Maine towns too stingy to update fire department

Buxton gets a grant that will pay for four full-time firefighters for two years. So, then what?

My beloved hometown of Buxton got some fantastic news last week: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security just shelled out $441,460 to hire us a fire department!

Actually, we already have the trucks, the rescue units, three stations, a full-time chief and some 84 volunteers, part-timers and others who do their best to keep Buxton’s 8,000 or so residents safe from fire and other calamities large and small.

What we haven’t had, beyond that fire chief, are any full-time firefighters. Thanks to that federal grant, however, we’ll soon have four full-timers – at no cost to us local taxpayers – for the next two years.

That leaves me, at the risk of raining on this parade, with two questions:

First, what happens two years from now?

“I imagine it will be a topic of discussion,” replied Jean Harmon, one of Buxton’s three selectmen, in a moment of blissful understatement.

And second, should the federal government really be in the business of paying for services that local municipalities are too miserly to pay for themselves?

Or, as Fire Chief Nathan Schools put it to me last week, “At some point, you have to stop doing things on the cheap.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. When it comes to folks without access to enough food or much-needed health care (to name but two measures of a compassionate society), I’m all for the federal government maintaining a safety net for those who might otherwise go hungry or die a preventable death.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those municipal officials who labor mightily to keep those local services intact even as things like state revenue sharing (I’m looking at you, Gov. Paul LePage) get pulled out from under them with little warning and even less justification.

Still, this federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant has me flummoxed.

Folks who have lived in Buxton a lot longer than my 12 years will tell you there was a time when the volunteer fire department worked like a charm: At the sound of the alarm, a sizable contingent of workers at the local mills would make a beeline for the nearby firehouse, go extinguish the fire and then make the relatively short trip back to work.

No longer. Just as Buxton has grown in population to be 31st among Maine’s 488 municipalities – from 3,135 residents in 1970 to an estimated 8,086 today – so has it become a Portland bedroom community where most people head far out of town in the morning and don’t return until sundown.

That leaves Schools, now in his second year as chief, to patch together as much protection as he can with part-timers who work as full-time firefighters in surrounding communities and use Buxton to supplement their income, four students from Southern Maine Community College’s Public Safety Student Live-In Program, and the half-dozen or so volunteers still close enough to respond while the rest of the townfolk are away at work.

The consequences of being spread so thin: Buxton often pays neighboring communities to transport an injured or sick person to the hospital for lack of a local firefighter qualified to do so.

Equally disconcerting: The International Organization for Standardization, whose Public Protection Classification ratings are used by insurance carriers to help determine homeowner policy premiums, currently rates Buxton at 9 on its scale of 1 (excellent) to 10 (where’s the garden hose?).

In short, Buxton until now has gotten what it’s paid for: a fire department that has failed over the decades to keep up with its rapidly changing demographics.

Enter the feds.

The Department of Homeland Security’s $320 million-per-year SAFER program grew out of concerns, fueled first by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and then by recession-induced shortfalls in municipal budgets, that too many local fire departments were not up to the task of 21st-century public protection.

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