Shaw named top fire chief in the state

MIDDLEBURY — David Shaw devotes hundred of hours every year to the Middlebury Fire Department. It is not just training on the best ways to pour water on a fire. The modern fire department is also called out to rescue people in lakes and rivers, stuck on the ice, and clinging to the sides of a mountain. Plus there is containment and cleanup of hazardous materials.
As assistant chief of the Middlebury department, Shaw also contributes to making sure the organization’s three dozen other firefighters are well trained and the equipment is in good working order. And that doesn’t even consider the work he does as president of the Addison County Firefighters Association.
But all that work seems to come as second nature to the 52-year-old Weybridge resident, who has been involved with the Middlebury Fire Department for 34 years, has been assistant fire chief for 14 years, and is a member of Middlebury Technical Rescue. He is the third generation of his family involved with the Middlebury Fire Department, and he also has several family members active in other area fire services. As such, he said it was inevitable that he would become a firefighter.
“Firefighting is in my blood … I had no choice,” Shaw said with a laugh.
This past Saturday, the Vermont State Firefighters Association named Shaw its Vermont Fire Chief of the Year. This award, presented by the association at its 125th annual conference in St. Albans, honors a chief or assistant chief from the state’s 200 fire departments whose lasting commitment goes above and beyond.
The Middlebury Fire Department is a volunteer organization that responds to about 220 fire calls per year, Shaw said. There are about 35 volunteer members of the department.
“As you go up the ranks, you make more and more of a time commitment,” said Shaw, who estimated that between fire calls, his four monthly meetings, and planning work, he spends more than 10 hours per week on the fire department. Shaw is also employed full-time at Co-operative Insurance.
Shaw said that the biggest personal challenge of his involvement is “balancing firefighting with my personal life … but my family is used to me running out during dinner or on holidays now to go to a fire.”
Despite the commitment and responsibility, Shaw continues to find his work rewarding.
His longtime firefighting associate and current Middlebury Fire Chief Richard Cole described Shaw as a “great leader who has done an outstanding job” in his various community roles.
“If there is something that needs to get done, he gets it done,” Cole said. “The fire department is part of his family, he treats them that way.”
In addition to working closely with Shaw at the Middlebury Fire Department, Cole has witnessed Shaw’s leadership as president of the Addison County Firefighters Association and as a member of the Technical Rescue team.
“He’s done an excellent job with the firefighters association, he has seen through improvements where needed,” Cole said. “All of the firefighters respect him.”
Cole added that the Technical Rescue team is “very demanding work,” and that the Middlebury crew has been “recognized statewide” for their water rescue, ice rescue and rope rescue capacities.
In addition to the challenges of balancing his own busy life, Shaw is very conscious of larger problems facing the fire department.
Fire departments both locally and across the state are having an increasingly hard time with recruitment and retention of new firefighters, Shaw said. He attributes much of this problem to young people moving out of state, and Vermont’s high cost of living keeping those that remain too busy to volunteer.
Shaw said that while many firefighters start training and go to the firefighting rookie school during the fall, departments lose a lot of members between five and 10 years of service.
“There has been discussion, even at the state level, about this issue,” Shaw said. He added that Middlebury offers firefighters life insurance policies and other local fire departments have been holding recruitment dinners as incentives for people to join.
“We also do a poor job of telling people how many calls we have,” said Shaw of the state fire departments on the whole, saying that firefighters “go about their business quietly and selflessly.”
On the upside, Shaw said, many local businesses help to make Vermont departments a success.
“The Vermont fire service wouldn’t be what it is without organizations that allow their employees to drop everything and respond to a fire call during a shift,” Shaw said. “We don’t do as good of a job as we should thanking these employers.”

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