GOSHEN — Two months ago, Will Mathis had no idea what it took to start a fire department.
Now Mathis, 22, is chief of the new, 10-member Goshen Volunteer Fire Department (GVFD), and although he has already filled out piles of paperwork, there is a lot still to be done.
“We're going to be raising funds, doing coin drops, spaghetti dinners and community service events to get our name out there,” said Mathis, whose mother, Kathy Mathis, is a member of the Goshen selectboard.
The fledgling department, which is independent from the town of Goshen, got its nonprofit certification on July 20. Mathis said he has already written the constitution and the bylaws, and he has filed many pages worth of state and federal paperwork.
“It’s probably like doing a doctorate,” he said with a laugh. He has been organizing the department on top of his odd jobs doing bug spraying for the state, teaching CPR, first aid and swimming lessons. In the winter, he also works as a ski manager at Blueberry Hill Cross Country ski center. And though in the fall he will be attending Castleton College several nights a week to get his masters in education, he said he will be able to make it back to Goshen in 25 minutes in case of an emergency.
The town of Goshen is currently covered by the Brandon Fire Department, a service for which Mathis said the town pays $3,000 each year, plus fees for individual fires.
He said that the idea to start a department in Goshen came from knowing all of the people in town who had experienced house and car fires. Waiting for help from outside of the town to arrive had been frustrating for those people.
“It’s something people want to see, instead of waiting for another department to come,” he said. “It’s not their fault for the response time — it’s just that they’re so far away, and they’re volunteers, too.”
So Mathis began the process in July and started looking for other people willing to join the department.
“At first it was friends and family,” he said. “Then word got around town, and people started asking.”
Mathis said he is pretty sure the Goshen department is the yougest fire department in the state — many of the members are in their 20s. His assistant chief, Erica Godin, is 20, and works as a nurse at Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Middlebury.
“We were friends, and Will was like, ‘Hey, do you want to join a fire department?’” she said. “It sounded interesting.”
Though the members of the small fire department are still working on getting their firefighter training, the department has a head start on medical expertise. Godin is a registered nurse, and Mathis is an instructor in first aid and CPR. He said that most of his members also have first aid and CPR certifications.
But no one in the department has been a firefighter before — Brandon’s fire department requires members to live within the town, so no one in Goshen has been able to join. Although Mathis decided to accept members from neighboring towns, they are all starting from scratch.
Since volunteer firefighters are required to have nearly 200 hours of training, Mathis acknowledged that it would take some time for his entire team to get their full training.
“It’s going to be years. Each person has a job, school, a life of their own. They’re training on their spare time.”
Mathis said that the Vermont Fire Academy will be running classes in Middlebury in the coming months, so with any luck, the first of his firefighters may be certified by January. The others would be able to help out in other ways until they were fully trained.
Until those classes begin, members of the Goshen fire department are attending trainings at individual departments. Last Thursday night several of them attended a rapid entry and response training with the Ira Volunteer Fire Department.
“We're trying to work with other departments, to see what they do and help them out,” said Mathis.
With the help of area departments, Mathis and his crew already have enough protective gear for all of them, donated by the departments in Ripton, Whiting, Rochester and Hancock.
And the Whiting fire department gave Goshen a truck, which Mathis said was one of their older machines, made in the 1980s. Right now, members of the department are building a garage on Mathis’s land to house that and one other truck, which they hope to get from Bethel in the coming weeks.
“We want to say a great thanks,” said Mathis for the donations. “It’s a great community … we’re going to try to do mutual aid with those departments – since they helped us out, we’ll help them out.”
Even with donations, running a fire department is not cheap.
“Our key thing now is just being able to afford insurance and up-to-date radios,” said Mathis. He said that the radios will probably run the department several thousand dollars.
Brandon Fire Chief Bob Kilpeck said that startup fire departments are rare, partly for that reason — the cost of running a department and replacing and maintaining equipment is expensive, and staff can be hard to come by.
“You don’t hear about departments starting a lot right now. It’s mostly consolidations,” he said.
Still, Mathis estimated that after the initial costs, the department’s operating costs would not be high — he estimated that it could operate on approximately $3,000 each year for equipment and registration maintenance. Until it is well established, however, he said he will not be going to the town for money.
Instead, he and members of the department will be focusing on fundraising and writing proposals for grants from state and national organizations to fund the department.
They will also all be working on getting the training and experience they need to fight fires. Mathis is happy to see the department come to where it is.
“We have a department that's a good family, it's a good strong family.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.