AUGUSTA, Maine (NECN) — For years, Maine fire chiefs have been sounding the alarm about low recruitment levels, especially in rural communities.
"It's not at crisis level yet, but it's very close," said Winthrop Fire Chief Daniel Brooks.
"The fire service, just like everything else in Maine, is aging," said Hallowell Fire Chief James Owens.
The chiefs said one reason it's getting harder to recruit is because firefighters can be expected to travel long distances for training. Unlike other New England states, Maine does not have a state fire academy. Instead, firefighters practice on burn buildings. Only six communities have them: Auburn, Bangor, Caribou, Ellsworth, Hollis, and Yarmouth.
Brooks said fire departments in central, northern and downeast Maine have to go far to get mandatory training hours. The time commitment can be a barrier for someone considering volunteering.
"People just don't have the time," said Owens.
A bipartisan bill would commit $1 million in annual funding to the issue. LD 1845 would pay for upgrades to outdated training facilities and help build new ones in communities lacking them.
"It's time to put our money where our mouth is," said Rep. Erin Herbig (D-Belfast), a co-sponsor of the legislation. "How can we ask firefighters to put their lives on the line when we are not willing to offer the training they need to protect themselves?"
The House voted unanimously in favor of the funding Wednesday. The measure now moves to the legislature's Appropriations Committee.