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Fire service scrambling for recruits

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

FERRISBURGH — Addison County fire service veterans see the banners outside of the Ferrisburgh Fire Department’s Route 7 station as signs of the times.

Those recruiting banners read: “Volunteers Wanted, It’s easier than you think” and “Seeking Volunteers, You CAN Do It!”

Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager said until recent years his volunteer department has had about 30 firefighters. Now, with recruiting failing to keep pace with retirements and resignations, his ranks have dwindled to 19.

It’s getting to the point, Wager said, where Ferrisburgh’s tactics at fires may be changed: Federal safety rules reasonably require, for example, that two firefighters remain outside a burning structure for every two who enter it.

“I think we’re going to be faced with being much more creative with staffing and how we engage the fire, what tactics we’re using ... whether we make an attack on the fire or take a defensive posture to protect other structures,” he said.

His department also calls other volunteer departments for mutual aid for significant fires, and now must cast a wider net asking for help: Many other towns also have fewer volunteers available to respond.

“Usually we called one or two departments to get enough staffing, but now we call four or five departments,” Wager said.

While they have some ideas on how to create incentives for new recruits and many departments’ numbers remain healthy, fire service leaders say the problem is widespread in the county, state and nation.

Addison County Firefighters Association President and Vergennes Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Breur said numbers are down in many communities, and that many towns are also dealing with aging rosters.

“I would say most departments are struggling to maintain people they have and have new people come in. As some of us get older, we do our best, but a lot of it is heavy, hard work,” Breur said.

Former county association president Dean Gilmore, a 33-year veteran of the New Haven department who is working on legislative solutions with statewide fire service organizations, summed up the worries of officials at many area fire departments.

“When the tone goes off, you never know how many are going to show up,” Gilmore said. “You never know if you’re going to have enough people.”

RECRUITMENT ISSUES

Fire service leaders trace recruitment problems to the changing times, to the struggling economy and to the growing demands of the profession. Several local department heads recalled the same thing: When they first signed on in the 1970s, they had to take 45 hours of training to become a “Firefighter 1,” the basic level required to be active in the field.

Now, said Addison Fire Chief Chris Mulliss, that basic requirement has almost quadrupled.

“The training for Firefighter 1 is over 160 hours now,” Mulliss said. “It’s all necessary, but it’s hard for people nowadays to donate that much time.”

Vergennes Deputy Chief Jim Larrow said a Firefighter 1 course typically lasts every Thursday night from September through April, plus another four or five full weekends at the fire training center in Pittsford.

Breur said once a new firefighter finishes that training a recruit must then practice teamwork with new colleagues before he or she is ready for the field.

“On top of that you have to work with your department,” Breur said. “With the busy lives people have right now, a lot of people are saying, ‘No way.’”

The new hours of training are not just tacked-on bureaucracy, the experts said. Larrow said more hazardous materials are being allowed along state and federal highways, and that new construction techniques must be understood before fires can be attacked.

Gilmore said even new cars are getting trickier — side air bags may protect occupants, but post-crash deployment could injure rescue workers, while hybrid-electric cars pose shock hazards. 

“We’ve gone from the dangers to us of the air bags to the high voltage in cars,” Gilmore said. “It creates more dangers for us. That means more training.”

Meanwhile, as the economy slumps, Wager is working two jobs as well as working up to 15 hours a week to keep his department running. He said people are finding it more difficult to fit volunteering into their schedule.

“The other issue is economic times are harder. People are working overtime and two jobs,” he said.

Larrow said he has heard the same from other departments and firefighters, especially as the cost of living rises and jobs grow scarcer.

“It’s just such a time-consuming job, and the way the economy is now people are working hard,” Larrow said.

Another member of Wager’s department stepped down because he has three children busy with sports and other pursuits.

“It’s hard to juggle extra activities with family,” Wager said.

Times are also simply different. Wager pointed to the history of Ferrisburgh, once dotted with thriving farms. Historically when an emergency arose, chores could often wait while neighbors were helped. Now, he said, Ferrisburgh is increasingly a bedroom community from which residents commute to Chittenden County. It’s often difficult to find firefighters during the day, not an unusual problem in Addison County.

“We used to be able to muster a pretty good response during the day because of the people who worked in the town,” Wager said. “There are a couple people who work in town, but that’s the exception to the rule.”

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Steps are being taken to address the shortage, which leaders agree could eventually strike even the departments that now boast healthy rosters.

“For years and years, the Bristol fire department had a waiting list,” Gilmore said. “And they no longer have a waiting list.”

Gilmore is among the state professionals working with their national counterparts and Congressional leaders on two bills that would help fire departments and their members. Gilmore is the chairman of the Vermont Firefighters Association’s government affairs committee and a member of the Vermont Fire Chiefs Association’s legislative committee.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-Penn.), has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. It would call on the federal government to reimburse local fire departments and rescue services for 75 percent of their fuel use, including gasoline and building heating costs.

Gilmore said the bill, if passed, would lessen the time fire and rescue volunteers would have to spend fund-raising, and said that departments are becoming increasingly hesitant to respond to calls they perceive as unnecessary.

“I’ve heard people say if they are toned out for something minor like a lift assist ... they wouldn’t respond,” Gilmore said. “Because when they get there they aren’t needed, and they burned that fuel for nothing ... And we can’t afford to have that.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will introduce the second bill to the U.S. Senate next month. It would allow local communities to offer pension and insurance benefits to local fire and rescue volunteers, as the towns saw fit, Gilmore said, and require federal reimbursement. That bill would also offer a standard income tax deduction for “active, participating” first responders.

Gilmore said those financial carrots might induce some residents to volunteer.  

“In order to recruit today, you need to offer them something in return,” Gilmore said. “The younger generation is having to spend more time at work to make ends meet.”

Statewide laws are also possible. Larrow is a member of the Vermont Coalition of Fire, EMS and Rescue Services. That group met recently to discuss recruitment and retention issues and will explore Vermont legislative options this winter.

“That’s going to be our top priority this year in Montpelier,” he said. 

Larrow also said that the departments can do more to reach out to volunteers who maybe can’t fight fires, but can perform other needed tasks, like accounting, grant-writing, engine maintenance and administrative work.

“You hardly ever see a white-collar worker in our fire department. We’re all blue-collar workers,” he said. “We would love to have people like that (professionals) in our department.”

Larrow said the Vergennes department might consider extending membership on some basis to residents who have not completed firefighting training.

“Maybe we don’t need to (insist on training). Maybe there will be firefighters and the people to keep the administration going and keep the trucks on the road,” he said. 

Of course, maybe more banners may make a difference, too. Wager said one potential recruit stopped in this past Wednesday.

“I’m thrilled someone made note of the sign,” he said, “and I’d like to find five or six more who would like to do the same.”

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