Fire depts. seek new ways to fill up rosters

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County firefighters have joined a statewide effort to develop a much shorter certification process for aspiring volunteer firefighters, figuring the current requirement of more than 200 training hours is one of several factors that have been thwarting recruitment efforts.
Area fire chiefs also vowed to organize a “job fair” to reach potential volunteers in an effort to fill the dwindling ranks of local fire departments.
The county’s volunteer firefighters have for more than 20 years been trained through the “Firefighter 1” certification course, which requires around 200 hours of training and constant refreshers on the considerable technical and physical skills needed at fires and other emergency scenes.
The initial training requires an investment of eight Saturdays, a hurdle that can stop many applicants in their tracks — particularly if their job includes Saturdays.
“A lot of them say, ‘I don’t have 200 hours to give,’” said Cornwall fire Chief Dennis Rheaume.
With that in mind, fire officials are looking to devise a new certification option that could allow candidates to shorten their minimum training requirement to 80 or fewer hours, depending on the kind of firefighting they would like to pursue. For example, a recruit who wants to specialize in interior firefighting could be required to complete a different number of training hours than someone who wants to focus on driving and maintaining apparatus.
Fire officials from throughout the state were scheduled to meet in Pittsford on May 3 to discuss the shortened training program concept, which would have to be approved by the Vermont Department of Public Safety, according to Middlebury Fire Chief Dave Shaw.
Shaw and his colleagues statewide are increasingly searching for new ways to inspire recruits for local fire departments, which have seen rosters declining for more than a decade as the state gets grayer.
And it’s a problem that extends far beyond Vermont.
A March 31 report in the Boston Globe noted 70 percent of all firefighters in the United States serve on call rather than as full-time career employees, saving their communities almost $140 billion a year. But volunteer firefighter ranks throughout the country have declined from 897,750 in 1984 to 808,150 as of 2015, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Local departments have been able to offset the lower volunteer ranks through mutual aid agreements. In essence, when a blaze is reported in one town, firefighters in some of the surrounding communities will pitch in.
   MIDDLEBURY FIREFIGHTERS Myron Selleck, left, Pat Shaw, LeRoy Graham and Dave Shaw met recently with firefighters from other Addison County communities to discuss strategies to beef up membership. Local fire departments are facing dwindling numbers of volunteers.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“Regionalization of fire service is already here. It’s happening now,” Shaw said. “If you listen to your scanner, if you have a fire call in Bristol, there’s going to be five fire departments there. If we have a fire call in Middlebury, there are going to be at least three (departments responding).”
While the Middlebury department’s membership has been declining, its calls for service have been increasing steadily. The department has been fielding 15 to 20 calls per week and a total of 230 last year, according to Asst. Chief Myron Selleck.
Meanwhile, there are 34 firefighters in a Middlebury department that should ideally have 50, Shaw said. A core group of volunteers is thus required to do more work in what is a critical community service.
“What we’re finding is we are working those people out of being interested in the fire service,” Shaw said. “For us, if you’re attending a call three times a week, that’s a lot of time away. That’s an issue for us.”
Middlebury is one of the few Addison County communities that have been seeing a population bump, but that hasn’t translated into more interest in the fire department, said Shaw.
“You would think with the minor growth in population in Middlebury, we’d see some kind of uptick in our membership here,” he said. “But it’s just the opposite. People in this community require services that are very difficult to provide on a volunteer level.”
Area fire chiefs said they’re well aware of the limits people have on their volunteer hours. Work. Children’s extra-curricular events to attend. Hobbies. But Shaw is concerned that not as many people are as keen on giving back to their community through fire service as they once were.
“The interesting thing is, all that was there before,” Shaw said of the competing interests. “None of that has gone away. My parents worked 40-to-50-hour weeks and raised five kids, and they had time to volunteer. There were 24 hours in a day back then, too.”
The Cornwall Fire Department has 24 members, down from what had been an average of more than 30, according to Rheaume. The crew has been responding to an average of 70 calls per year, though it fielded 95 last year. The average age of a current Cornwall firefighter is between 40 and 45, he said. A core group of around a dozen Cornwall firefighters can usually be mustered for service calls, according to Rheaume.
Rheaume has tried to pick up new recruits at community events, but it’s a tough sell in Cornwall these days. Cornwall is supportive of its fire department, but its residents — many of whom are older and who work in Middlebury — are in a better position to offer financial assistance than service on the front lines.
“They say, ‘Who do I make the check out to?’” Rheaume said.
But money can’t lift a fire hose.
“You can write me a check for $2 million or $3 million and we can buy the fanciest fire truck in the world, but I’ve got to have someone to drive it,” Rheaume said.
As a result, Rheaume depends on help from surrounding towns, especially Middlebury.
New Haven fire Chief Allen Mayer is rounding out his 39th year on the force. He oversees a 50-year-old department that counts 24 members. It wasn’t that long ago that New Haven was carrying around 35 members.
“I’ve seen all the changes,” Mayer said. “In the last 10 or 15 years, it’s been very difficult to get people to join.”
For prospective recruits, the number of training hours can be intimidating while trying to balance family and professional commitments, local fire chiefs noted.
“I think we’re seeing more and more young kids going off to college and moving out of state,” Mayer added.
New Haven is among several fire departments with cadet programs that give teens an introduction to firefighting in hopes they will eventually become full-fledged members. But relatively few have been graduating to department membership, Mayer said.
“We’ve got two (cadets) right now who are headed off to college,” Mayer said. “When they graduate, who knows where they’re going to end up? It may not be in Vermont.”
Mayer said the changing face of the economy has also affected fire departments’ candidate pools. Many folks used to toil in a local agricultural economy and were therefore just a few minutes from the local firehouse in case of an emergency. But hundreds of farms have closed during the past few decades, and increasingly people have sought jobs in urban centers, leaving some towns to become bedroom communities.
“When I joined, a lot of the farmers were members,” Mayer said. “We have less and less farmers. We’re down to around three farms in New Haven now, and more people working out of town, in Burlington, Rutland and all over the place. They can’t respond to calls during the day.”
Mayer is hoping New Haven’s firefighter recruitment efforts get a bump from a new fire station to be built in the near future. The Vermont Green Line companies agreed to give New Haven $3 million to build such a facility, one of several financial perks it offered the town in return for hosting a new power converter station that will be part of an effort to bring hydro and wind power from upstate New York via cable under Lake Champlain and into the New England power grid.
“If we end up with a new station, I think that could possibly help, but that’s not the magic bullet,” Mayer said.
Until a new station is built, the New Haven firefighters and first responders will continue to recruit, using word-of-mouth, direct invitations, the town newsletter and large banners. Mayer stressed the department is not only looking for folks to fight fires. It also needs people who can fund raise and help with paperwork.
Teena Betourney is director of Middlebury Regional EMS. Only a few decades ago, the organization ran primarily on the efforts of a few dozen volunteers out of a converted home off Elm Street. The organization in 2010 transitioned to a new, 11,860-square-foot headquarters near Porter Hospital. It offers a wide range of services to complement the ambulance service it provides to 10 Addison County communities covering a population of roughly 18,000 people over 400 square miles.
Middlebury Regional EMS has had to rely more heavily on paid staff as its volunteer base has eroded over the years (now down to just six for heavy rescue), noted Betourney.
“We’re having to pay people now because we can’t get the volunteers, which has put us in a financial crisis,” Betourney said.
The organization relies on fire departments to help out at emergency scenes.
“When we can’t get our own people, we call them for help,” Betourney said. “It’s tough all the way around.”
Regional EMS gladly accepts help from Middlebury College students, though the rigorous, costly training requirements present the same hurdles that firefighting trainees encounter. Students rarely have enough time to absorb the necessary medical skills needed to tackle frontline cases, Betourney noted. They can begin to do such work in their third year — if they have had the requisite training, she said.
“And then we lose them the next year,” she said, adding, “They are extra hands, which is fantastic and we’re grateful, but they never get to run as that ‘partner’ to be able to lessen the load.”
Shaw said it will be essential for volunteer fire departments to find new ways to reach potential young members. That means becoming proficient in all forms of social media. The Middlebury force maintains five roster spots for Middlebury College students who continue to respond to the call after learning about the opportunity.
“Today’s youth doesn’t respond the way that (older generations) did,” Shaw said. “It’s a different medium that they respond to. We have to be very diversified in how we look for these people.”
The college students have provided great service through the years, Shaw said, though it’s almost always for short-term stints before graduation.
“We have them from all over the world. It’s really amazing,” Shaw said. “And most of them found us through our website.”
Once people join a fire department they usually stick around for a while, officials said.
LeRoy Graham, who chairs the Middlebury Fire Department’s membership committee, is an example of a firefighter who started out in a limited role and then eventually took the plunge.
Pat Shaw, assistant chief of the Middlebury Fire Department, recalled how Graham had agreed to temporarily cover some accounting chores while another member was taking a year off.
But soon, Graham’s interest went beyond his oversight of the organization’s books.
“Next thing you know, LeRoy’s in the apparatus room looking around,” Pat Shaw recalled. “We’re all snickering, because we know he’s going to get the bug. You know if he’s on the apparatus floor, you just thread the line and he’s hooked.”
Sure enough, Graham went through his Firefighter 1 training and is a full fledged member, now trying to attract others to follow in his footsteps.
“It was, ‘I’m doing the books, what can I do next?’” Graham said. “It was all because of personal interaction. Someone got me through the door.”
Ultimately, Shaw believes “regionalization” will be key to the provision of fire service in the county. This could result in firefighting at a lower cost while boosting membership, he said.
While it might seem like the logical next step, Shaw noted it’s natural for some local departments to feel protective of their turf and resources. But change has to come, he said.
“We’d probably have to have to fund regional service through a county tax and not necessarily through the local property tax anymore,” Shaw said. Organizers would have to establish a new leadership hierarchy and a firefighter response schedule based on the location of the various local stations. It would also likely require some full-time staff, officials said.
“We’ve become much closer neighbors,” Shaw said. “Fire service has driven us to get along with our neighbors … We have to get along. Dennis (Rheaume) needs me, and I need Dennis. We all need each other, much more than in 1946, when the Addison County Firefighters’ Association was formed.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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