Fire departments use training and preparation to keep response times short
ADDISON COUNTY — In less than five minutes, members of the Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department will answer a call, throw on their heavy gear, pile into their fleet of trucks, switch on the siren and head out for their mission.
“We have a joke,” said Middlebury Department Chief David Shaw. “If we’re not out of here in five minutes, we’re not coming.”
The Vergennes Fire Department firefighters pride themselves on the time they arrived at Basin Harbor Club in seven minutes, a trip that usually takes about 20 minutes.
As any firefighter will say, responding to a fire requires speed and preparation. But preparing to be a firefighter is no speedy process.
Firefighters in Addison County train for 200 hours before they’re allowed to become full department members. These 200 hours are part of the Firefighter 1 program that runs out of Middlebury’s station on 5 Seymour Street.
The program runs from September through May and over these eight months students learn more than firefighting skills.
“Firefighting isn’t just fighting fires anymore,” said Vergennes Fire Department Chief Jim Breur. “We’re an emergency response crew so we have to train for just about anything.”
In 1982 when Middlebury’s Shaw first completed the program, it had just been boosted from 38 hours to 40.
“To get the same amount of training that those guys get in eight months took me five years,” he said. “From a perspective of exposure it’s a much better program.”
Once the program is complete, Addison County firefighters are required to maintain at least 24 hours additional training each year, a number that is often exceeded, according to Breur. Specialized programs in services such as water rescue can also supplement the basic training.
“Some people have a whole pile of things,” Breur said. “They get very well rounded.”
Before members complete the Firefighter 1 program, they can volunteer with the department as a cadet, from ages 16 to 18, and then in a probationary position once they’re older than 18. These volunteers are distinguished by a certain insignia or color — in Middlebury it’s a blue helmet for cadets and a symbol on the helmet for probationary members.
Although an important business, many departments are struggling to recruit new volunteers. According to Shaw, as little as five years ago the Firefighter 1 program had to deny additional students once they enrolled 40. This past year, the program only graduated 12 students.
But while volunteer numbers dwindle, the number of calls is rising rapidly.
In Middlebury last year the station responded to 250 calls for service, a number that has been steadily increasing over the past four years.
In Vergennes, the average number of calls per year sits at 167, only about nine of which are structure fires.
“It’s because there are more buildings, more alarms, more automation, more people during the day,” said Shaw.
When they’re not responding to calls, firefighters might be found in the station helping maintain equipment, receiving extra training or preparing for the next call. Rarely do they have time to just hang out, said Shaw.
As chief, Shaw spends about 25 hours per week in the station, and most volunteers are there for a few hours throughout the week.
And while the job is rewarding, it’s a time commitment for anyone.
“If I wasn’t there, I would be at home with my family,” said Breur, a 38-year department veteran. “I’m never around on birthdays or holidays, we always get called out.”