SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Ninety percent of Maine fire departments rely on volunteers to respond to most, if not all of their calls for service, but the number of volunteers willing to answer the call for help have dwindled as call volumes continue to increase.
To help fill their gaps in manpower, many departments have had to hire full-time members, or piece schedules together using per diem staff, adding expenses that few town budgets can absorb.
In southern Maine, a growing number of fire departments have turned to students, inviting them to live in their fire houses rent free in exchange for providing coverage.
"It is absolutely critical," stated Steve Willis, Department Chair for Fire Science at Southern Maine Community College. "Just a few years ago, a member of my family had a fire in their house, and there were forty fire fighters from three communities who responded and thirty were live in students."
Willis, who has been a career fire fighter and volunteer for decades in addition to his duties at SMCC, says the student live-in program is a win-win-win for the community, college and students.
"About eighty percent of students are actually living in area fire stations rather than actually living on campus," he said. "They are getting a tremendous amount of experience, and guidance, and mentoring at that same time."
He says in addition to experience, students get room and board, saving them roughly $10,000 a year, and most are paid for the time the spend responding to calls and taking part in mandatory training exercises.
"These are well-trained, motivated, highly committed people, so it is a huge help to those local fire departments," added Willis.
Nearly seventy students live in fire houses scattered throughout eighteen communities in the greater Portland area, and not all of them are fire science students. In fact, any full-time student enrolled at SMCC, the University of Southern Maine or St. Joseph's College can apply to take part.
"It provides us with the correct amount of staffing we need," stated Deputy Fire Chief Chad Johnston, of the Dayton Fire Department. "Instead of two people having to handle the call, two of the call force people perhaps at night, now we have got four people there which makes the job much safer and more efficient."
He says having the students in the building, interacting with the department's other members also causes the rest of the department to become more involved and provide guidance by mentoring the students.
"We are going to do the best that we can with whatever situation we are given," explained Delani Littlefield, a second year fire science student who calls the Waterboro Fire Department her home away from home. "We are educated and informed, and obviously we are here to continue our education."
She says often times she, along with the three other students that are assigned to Waterboro, make up the majority of first responders answering the call when the a call for help comes in.
"We have week nights where it is one per diem or one captain on duty, and the three students," she said. "If you call 911 at first, that is what you are getting here at the station.
"We are able to continue getting our training and experience and all of that, and the town is getting people that are competent and capable of working toward mitigating a situation."
She says people shouldn't be concerned that young men and women, just barely out of high school, are responding to help them in an emergency.
"I'm that person that could possibly save your kid's life. I'm that person that is going to be going into that burning building and trying to save as much as I possibly can for you," she said. "I've learned this, now I am able to apply it."