Salem Fire sends out SOS

9 mins read
The Salem Volunteer Fire Department building is 150 years old and owned by the Maine Forest Service.

SALEM TOWNSHIP — An unobtrusive brown building with yellow trim on Route 142 houses the Salem Volunteer Fire Department. At first glance, nothing about the building says ‘fire station’.

Salem Fire operates out of this small, 150-year-old building. A former schoolhouse, it is now owned by the Maine Forest Service, hence the brown color scheme. Salem Fire provides fire protection and emergency response services for the 27 square miles of Salem Township, including Mount Abram High School. They are also mutual aid partners with the Kingfield, Strong, and Phillips fire departments. The department has around 17 active members on the roster and they respond to between 35 and 40 calls per year, according to Fire Chief Steve Viles.

The station has a single bay, barely large enough to house the two trucks that were donated to the department, one from Phillips Fire and one from Seymour, Connecticut. The door had to be raised two inches to allow one of the trucks to fit inside, and the walkway between the trucks is too narrow to meet regulations. One side of the truck bay is drooping towards the ground and needs to be raised up and appropriately supported. At the back of the building is a small office, roughly 12 by 15 feet, which serves as their meeting space and training room. Due to COVID, the weekly trainings are limited to only three or four firefighters to allow social distancing.

There is no running water and no bathroom at the station. There is no facility to clean and decontaminate turnout gear, and no shower for firefighters to clean up themselves after messy calls. The department keeps wet wipes in the trucks and in the training room so firefighters can clean off the top layer of grime before they go home.

There is no room in the station for lockers for firefighters to store their gear, and the turnout gear itself is mismatched and old. The county last purchased turnout gear about 20 years ago; the rest of the gear is hand-me-downs from other departments when they upgraded to newer gear.

Water for the trucks is drawn from Howard Pond, Quick Stream, or the small stream behind the station. In recent years, the water level in Salem has dropped to alarming lows. Wells that have never run dry are empty, and the stream behind the station dries up to a trickle in the summer.

“We make do,” Viles said.

Viles said that Salem Fire is one of only two fire departments in an unorganized territory in the state of Maine; the other is Rockwood Fire, near Greenville. Typically a fire department is in an organized municipality, which uses property tax dollars to pay for fire protection services. In the unorganized territories, the county is responsible for municipal services such as fire protection. Several municipal departments contract with Franklin County to provide fire protection services in the unorganized territories, including Eustis, Strong, Rangeley, and Phillips.

Salem Fire also contracts with the county to provide fire protection services in Salem township. At one point they were a department directly under the county commissioners, but this proved to be a cumbersome way to conduct business: among other examples, Viles said he had to get three bids from different companies for something as small as spark plugs for the engine. Now, Salem Fire contracts with the county and operates as an independent agency, the Salem Volunteer Fire Association.

Salem Fire was established in 1976, after a brush fire started and the residents were able to get it under control before the responding departments arrived to the scene. The drive to Salem from Kingfield, Strong, or Phillips is between seven and nine miles, and could take as much as twenty minutes for volunteers to get to their stations and respond to Salem Township. With Mount Abram High School centrally located between the three towns, Salem Fire can provide an immediate response for bomb threats, gas leaks, and potential fires at the high school. On at least one occasion when a fire alarm was activated at the high school, the fire department was on scene before the building was evacuated.

Because the fire department building is owned by the state, the department is automatically disqualified for a number of grant opportunities. This reportedly includes TIF funding through the county. Salem Fire would like to acquire the building and the Forest Service would like to give it to them, but there is a complicated process involving the state legislature for that to happen.

For several years Salem Fire has requested increased funds from the county due to the department’s needs and the rising costs associated with fire protection services, but the county has not granted that request, Viles said. They operate with the county funds, whatever grants they do qualify for, and their own fundraising.

None of the firefighters receive compensation for training or responding to calls; while most of the surrounding departments operate on a pay-per-call basis, Salem Fire is truly a volunteer department.

His crew is dedicated and takes a good deal of pride in their ability to respond rapidly and effectively to calls, Viles said.

Salem Fire has submitted an application for additional funding from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds. Some of the requests include COVID-19 relief stipends for firefighters, small salaries for three administrative roles in the department, new turnout gear, a well, and a septic system at the station. At the county commissioners meeting on May 3, the commissioners reviewed the proposal and added it to the list of other pending requests. The commissioners did ask that the county look again into using TIF funds to assist the department, and suggested the department look into grant funding with Franklin County Emergency Management Agency for turnout gear.

Viles has been chief since 1989, only 13 years after the department was founded. Ultimately, he wants to see a new station built. There is a piece of land next to the Economic Ministry Thrift Shop and Food Pantry that is potentially available for the department if they can raise the funds to build. He would like to see a station with ADA accessible bathrooms, four truck bays, a small kitchen, a large community center room, a training/meeting room, and a fire department office space.

Salem Fire has a good working relationship with the surrounding departments, Viles said. They provide an important service to MSAD 58, Salem Township, and Franklin County, but they are struggling to stay afloat and they need help.

After meeting with the Daily Bulldog, Viles said his plan for the weekend included taking the fire trucks over to his house so he could thoroughly clean them. Without running water at the station, this is the best way he knows to keep the trucks clean and well maintained.

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