Middlebury Fire Department puts out call for more firefighters

MIDDLEBURY — It was a little less than three years ago that the Middlebury Fire Department proudly unveiled its new headquarters on Seymour Street.
Now the department needs more volunteer firefighters to fill its station.
Middlebury Fire Chief David Shaw said his department is currently carrying around 30 volunteers, ranging from full-fledged firefighters to senior, honorary members whose contributions are limited to such tasks as doing clerical work and/or providing traffic control at incident scenes. The Middlebury force currently includes around 28 members qualified for intensive firefighting duties, including battling blazes and driving apparatus.
But Shaw said the Middlebury Fire Department should ideally have 50 members. That’s because an emergency call typically draws only 50 percent to 60 percent of the volunteer roster, due to firefighters’ professional and family commitments.
“If you’re running with 30 (members), you’re only getting 15 on an average call,” Shaw explained.
Having 50 firefighters on the roster would draw an average of around 25 members to a blaze, Shaw said.
“Twenty-five sounds like a lot of people, but it’s not when you pull up to a Middlebury College dorm, a shopping center or the Residences at Otter Creek — any of those larger structures,” said Shaw, who added his department responded to 235 calls for service last year.
As a result of its recent membership dip, the Middlebury Fire Department has had to rely more heavily on mutual aid from other departments and get more creative in its response tactics, officials said. Firefighters have learned to multi-task. In years gone by, the pump operator drove the pumper to the scene, stayed with the truck and worked the pump.
“Today, the task is totally different,” Shaw said. In addition to driving the pumper and operating the pump, this individual is likely to be asked to set up ventilation and monitor power sources to the equipment, Shaw noted.
“He’s a much more active man on the fire grounds than he ever used to be,” Shaw said. “We are cross-training a lot more than we used to.”
And it also means calling neighboring fire departments for help in battling blazes close to other communities’ borders. For example, Bristol is called to help Middlebury for incidents in the Route 116 area and Weybridge firefighters are called for blazes in the Weybridge Street area, according to Shaw.
“I don’t even think about it anymore,” Shaw said about the automatic nature of asking for mutual aid these days.
It’s a statewide and even national trend, Shaw emphasized, and it’s emblematic of competing time commitments for prospective members as well as mandatory training requirements that are becoming more complex and lengthy.
Vermont and more than 30 other states throughout the nation have adopted national standards in the training of volunteer firefighters. This entails, among other things, 200 hours of training for new members, and regular recertification. So recruits must give up several evenings and weekends for the duration of the course, which for Addison County firefighters is offered in Middlebury from September to April.
Four years ago, the Middlebury-based training course was maxed out at 40 students. This year’s class has around 25 recruits from various departments. Four of those individuals are future Middlebury firefighters. Unfortunately, the four Middlebury recruits in this year’s class will merely replace the four personnel the department has lost during the past year. And some of the county’s smaller departments have no recruits in this year’s class.
Middlebury Fire Department service used to be a popular draw for Middlebury College students. The department has historically set aside five slots for college students. There are currently three students on the roster, though there are no new recruits from the college this year.
“Usually, we have at least one,” Shaw said.
Shaw and Addison County Firefighters Association President Brett LaRose agreed that departments are losing members with six to 14 years of experience. Firefighters in that demographic, LaRose explained, are often working one or two jobs; have a spouse doing the same; and have children at the center of their lives. Consequently, a lot of the volunteer firefighters these days are either young men and women who are not yet established with families of their own, or are older members.
“The people with eight to 15 years of service are not there; they’re gone,” Shaw said.
LaRose said the Bristol Fire Department, of which he is the chief, is currently in good shape with a membership of 39 firefighters and four cadets. But, he added, attracting and retaining members is an ongoing battle.
“Volunteerism in Bristol is strong, but these are challenging times,” LaRose said of the competing time commitments for firefighters and their families.
And those who make a commitment to their department want to put their training to use, LaRose said. That’s never an issue in a town like Bristol, which annually logs upwards of 135 calls for fire service. But LaRose pointed to smaller, more rural fire departments in the county that might get only a dozen tone-outs per year. Every community wants to have as few fire emergencies as possible, but a consistent lack of action can weigh heavily on the minds of volunteers looking at 200 hours of up-front training, along with regular meetings and recertification.
“(Service) is what we’re here for,” LaRose said of members’ expectation of activity.
LaRose noted the Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes fire departments are fortunate to be part of their respective communities’ budgeting process. The other 14 departments in the county are independent, though they do request assistance from their townspeople annually at town meeting.
The cost of maintaining local departments is, and will continue to be, an increasing concern for firefighters and taxpayers, LaRose said. He said a growing part of his job is fundraising to take as much pressure off the Bristol taxpayers as possible. The Bristol Fire Department is currently planning for a new fire station off West Street.
Officials believe the current consolidation debate involving Vermont schools might soon envelop local fire departments. While there is no move afoot to establish a paid, regional fire department to cover Addison County, LaRose believes such a transition is likely just a matter of time. As an example, he spoke of the concept of a centralized fire department to cover the five-town area of Bristol, Starksboro, Monkton, Lincoln and New Haven. Some fire apparatus and firefighters could still be maintained in the smaller towns to provide support and specialized services — such as river rescue, LaRose said.
“Moving to a regional fire department, to me — as a firefighter and a taxpayer — makes sense,” LaRose said.
But LaRose and Shaw acknowledged that Vermonters are an independent bunch, and as such like holding onto local services. Many communities are paying a premium to keep their low-enrollment schools open, and are likely to foster the same attitude about fire protection, LaRose reasoned.
But ultimately, every taxpayer has his or her breaking point, fire officials said.
“Somewhere down the road, we will have to take a look at consolidation and sharing resources,” LaRose said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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