Today we are looking at the benefits and challenges faced by volunteer fire departments, and why every community needs to robustly support them. We’re putting the focus on Cundy’s Harbor as one example of the 335 volunteer fire and rescue departments throughout our rural state.

Everything that makes Midcoast Maine one of the most beautiful spots in our country also creates great difficulties for the systems that serve our rural citizens, especially our elderly ones. Each long peninsula is like a universe unto itself, which challenges regional planners greatly, and makes very localized services essential. This is especially true for fire and rescue.

Harpswell has three separate peninsulas, and so we have the Harpswell Neck, Cundy’s Harbor, and Orr’s and Bailey Island Fire and Rescue Departments.

Take a drive up Route 1 and you’ll find Georgetown, Phippsburg, Woolwich and Arrowsic with their volunteer fire departments. And so on up the coast, with every town having to manage budgets and equipment and figure out how they are going to staff these operations.

It’s no easier for inland communities … they also face a huge challenge. Maine has 335 fire departments registered with the National Fire Department Registry, with 242 volunteer groups; 73 mostly volunteer with some professionals; and just nine that are staffed mostly by professionals.

Most of the services provided by volunteer fire and rescue squads are emergency medical services in people’s homes. The Cundy’s Harbor squad responded to 220 calls in 2017. There were six building fires, and 7 other types of fires. They responded to 146 EMS calls to people’s homes, and 8 EMS calls to motor vehicle accidents.

Throughout Maine in 2017, there were 16 citizens who died in fire fatalities. When crews roll out to a fire or an accident or a home emergency medical call, they never really know what they are headed to until they are on the scene. It might be minor, but it could be seriously disastrous.

Town managers and selectmen are challenged to financially support fire and rescue services adequately for real emergencies, but without breaking their budgets or being wasteful. Inevitably, another challenge is the differing perspectives on what constitutes an adequate budget.

Some may say, “There are just not enough fires for rural towns to financially justify a paid fire fighting force.” And yet, every town needs the ability to fight fires or to have first responders who can provide emergency medical services.

Ben Wallace, fire chief for Cundy’s Harbor and Orr’s and Bailey Island, reports that his biggest challenge is to have enough licensed EMS personnel to attend all calls. And it’s tough … licensed EMS staff are an unpaid, all-volunteer force.

Rural communities all over the state have little or no full-time staff, and they face the challenge of recruiting enough younger volunteer firefighters and EMS staff to replenish the ranks of aging volunteers.

Speaking of volunteers … Ben Wallace is a great example. He’s a very busy man. Yes, he volunteers as fire chief for two Harpswell departments. However, he earns his living as a professional firefighter, serving as a lieutenant for the Portland Fire Department. He has a wife of 23 years, and a 12-year-old son. In his “spare time,” he serves as the executive pastor for his church.

He jokes that he sees wife and son twice a week, but that doesn’t really seem like a joke with his many responsibilities. So, when Ben says he needs more licensed emergency medical staff, we believe him!

The difficulty recruiting younger volunteers exists for several reasons. The obvious question is, if a volunteer department is unable to recruit younger people, who will show up at the scene as the older volunteers retire from service?

Jonathan Burbank is a 15-year volunteer for the Cundy’s Harbor Fire Department, and he says that he’s one of the more recent volunteers compared to the longtime stalwarts! Three of our personal friends have volunteered with the Cundy’s department since the early 1980s.

There are many more challenges to the volunteer fire and rescue system, more than we can cover in this short article. What we come away with most strongly is that despite all the challenges, volunteer fire departments perform an incredibly essential service for rural communities all over our state, and we need to support volunteerism, and we think, for towns to financially support departments not just with equipment, but with licensed EMS staff who receive some form of pay.

We asked Ben about his greatest reward in his work, and he said, “For me, it’s all about being there for people who are in need.”

We think he is expressing exactly the sentiment of so many great men and women throughout this state … people who give generously of their time and energy, their skill and talent, and their compassionate presence.

Harpswell residents: There will be a potluck fundraiser for the Cundy’s Harbor Fire Department at the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall on March 10, from 6 to 9 p.m. There will be live music and dancing to the super fun band, The Leopard Girls, a bunch of local old rockers who have a good time (see them on Facebook). Free admission, just bring a food dish and a donation appropriate to your budget, no reservation required.

Jill Wallace is the owner and director of Elm Street Assisted Living in Topsham. Steve Raymond is director of community outreach at the Lincoln Home in Newcastle, and the producer and host of the television show “Spotlight on Seniors.”