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The Little Firehouse That Roared

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JIM DINIVAIN WAS HAVING BREAKFAST on his 700-acre dairy farm in Dixmont, Maine (pop. 1,007), a year ago, when he spotted smoke pouring out of his barn. As his wife, Wanda, telephoned for help, Dunivan, 37, jumped into his pickup truck and raced to the building. The beams above his livestock—70 cows and 30 calves—were in flames.

Dunivan immediately started freeing the bawling, terrified cattle. He was soon joined by family, friends and neighbors—plus four trucks from the Dixmont Volunteer Fire Department. By the end of the day, their efforts had paid off. Only six animals were lost, and half the 200-foot barn was saved. “We were just neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends,” said volunteer firefighter Elton Erskine proudly. “And you know something? We got the fire out.”

Not good enough, said the state of Maine. As it happened, David Gibbs, a field representative of the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards, had stopped by the fire around 4 P.M., as mopping-up operations were under way. He told Dunivan, who is also the fire chief, that the volunteers might have put out the fire but they hadn’t put it out right. He complained that they weren’t wearing protective clothing or air packs, as required by slate regulations.

“I told him he was crazy,” Dunivan recalls, arguing that “we were just mopping up. Three-quarters of the barn had been cleaned up. and there was only about a 10-foot area of hay still smoldering.” But in July—six months after the fire—the state fined Dixmont $1,000 for not making it firefighters wear safety gear and carry small individual alarms. The slate also cited the fire company for not being able to prove that all the volunteers were adequately trained. It ordered the village cither to produce training records or to provide proper instruction. Failure to correct the violations could theoretically result in fines of $1,000 a day.

The village saw the orders as unwarranted interference from an over-zealous state bureaucracy and promptly appealed. “Volunteerism is what keeps rural communities like Dixmont going,” says First Selectman John Olson. “We can’t afford all the fire equipment big cities have, and yet the state classifies us the same as big cities.”

Particularly grating was the implicit message that Dunivan, whose father and grandfather farmed the same land before him, should not have tackled his barn fire without first going to the Dixmont firehouse to get protective gear. “Sure, Jim’s the fire chief, but in this case he’s not gonna drive four miles to the fire-house to get geared up and let his cattle and barn burn,” Olson says. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

The state’s ruling also posed financial problems for a village that is so small it has no full-time employees. “We’ve got three dairy farms, two corner stores and two shade-tree mechanics who can’t afford garages, so they hoist motors on an oak tree to repair them,” says Second Selectman Jack Dickson. “Everybody in Dixmont does a little bit of everything because you can’t make it [financially] if you don’t.”

Sending volunteers to a training center would be too expensive, Dunivan says, and in the case of experienced firefighters, it just isn’t necessary. New volunteers can get on-the-job training, he adds. “They [the state] should put country folks in perspective,” says Selectman Olson. “There’s not enough leeway. The volunteer firefighters are not employees. This is all freebie. It’s like biting off the hand that feeds you. Frankly, it’s none of their damn business.”

In September the state relented—just a little. James McGowan, director of the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards, agreed that some of the firefighters had been wearing protective clothing and air packs before his inspector arrived. McGowan reduced the fine to $100 but did not back off from the order that Dixmont had to comply with state law or face stiff fines. “The bottom line is you don’t expose people to hazards unless you have trained them and provided them with proper protection,” McGowan says. He believes it would be “bad public-policy” to have separate regulations for cities and small towns.

Dixmont officials appealed again, using money from a $1,300 legal fund raised at a benefit supper in July. Their case is expected to be heard this winter by the Maine Occupational Safety and Health Board. Wouldn’t it be cheaper simply to pay the $100 fine? “The amount of the fine is nothing,” says Olson. “It’s gonna cost us more to fight it, but somewhere in life you’ve got to take a stand, and for us, this is it.”


S. AVERY BROWN in Dixmont