HOULTON, Maine — Some of the Houlton Fire Department’s fire gear is so old it has holes throughout and a hand could literally go through the pants, Houlton Deputy Fire Chief Jim Brown told the Houlton Town Council on Monday night.
“The last time the entire department received gear was in 2001,” Brown said. “The town needs to protect our first responders and give them the tools to be safe and efficient with our responses to an emergency.”
The National Fire Protection Association recommends replacing turnout gear every 10 years.
Using old and worn gear is dangerous for firefighters, said Brown, who has been with the fire department for nearly 30 years. Firefighters do not have the proper protections in multiple situations, like chemical and structure fires. Additionally, when firefighter radios do not work properly, drivers and firefighters on scene are often unable to communicate, Brown said.
“We never know what situation we will be in when we go on a call,” he said. “And we really worry about the forever chemicals.”
Brown asked the council to consider using American Rescue Plan Act funds for items already in the capital plan, but not yet implemented. These include 14 sets of firefighter turn-out gear, four portable radios with noise reduction headsets to replace 20-year-old unreliable radios, mask mounted thermal imaging devices for structure fires and improvements to the firehouse’s rusted-out shower and an improved security system.
The total cost would be approximately $128,000, Brown said after the meeting.
Fire department staffing critically declined during COVID-19, and using ARPA funds for the department’s urgent needs fits in with the federal pandemic emergency funding guidelines, Brown said.
“We were down by eight to 10 men at one time. Thankfully we are gaining members,” he said.
There are currently 30 firefighters, including 22 paid call men (volunteers who receive a stipend) six full-time firefighter drivers, fire chief and deputy fire chief. As new firefighters are added to the department, gear and communications equipment is a concern, he said.
According to Brown, the town has unsuccessfully applied for a Fire Act Grant since 2017 to replace turn-out gear.
One set was replaced in 2020, 11 sets in 2021 with local funds and in 2022, the full-time drivers had gear replaced. But the remaining firefighters are going on calls in gear that has long outlived its life, Brown said, adding that one firefighter who is much taller than the gear they currently have has to fight fires in gear that is too small and worn. Turn-out gear is close to $4,000 per set including boots and helmets.
“The very first and basic responsibility that an employer has is to protect their employees,” Brown said.
On Monday night, the town council asked Town Manager Marian Anderson to create a list of items for a vote at the next town council meeting.
In other business, Gary Lovell was nominated and appointed to the RSU 29 School Board until the next regular municipal election; Stephen Graham was appointed to the planning board and Donna Johnson-Barnard, Kip Swallow and Robert Monroe were reappointed to the planning board for five-year terms.
A discussion of a proposed labyrinth for Riverside Park was tabled until the next meeting because Dick Rhoda, the Houlton lawyer who is donating the replica of the Chartres Labyrinth in France to the town, was unable to attend the meeting. Town Manager Anderson, per Rhoda’s request, asked the council to not discuss the issue if it might not get approval.
Several councilors said the labyrinth may not get council approval, referring to a recent Houlton Parks & Recreation Department Advisory Board vote against the labyrinth in Riverside Park.
The advisory board said it was “not a good fit to represent the park,” according to a memo from the Parks & Recreation Department Recreation Director Marie Carmichael.
The next Houlton Town Council meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 27.