Teenager Grady Brokaw dreams of service, joins the fire department

LINCOLN — Grady Brokaw heard the stories and he was hooked.
“I had a friend and his dad who were on the fire department,” he said. “My interest in firefighting developed through them. I could imagine myself doing what they do, and then I got excited about it.”
As soon as he turned 15, Brokaw applied and was accepted as a fire cadet in the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Company. Last summer he attended the Vermont State Firefighters Association Cadet Academy in Pittsford, and now, at 17, he’s enjoying himself.
“The fire company has been welcoming,” he said. “As a cadet I’m the low man on the totem pole but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s been great having mentors.”
Though his duties as a cadet are limited, the experience has given him a feel for the industry.
“It’s not just about fighting fires,” he said. “There are a lot of medical calls. It’s exciting to go out on a call. You never know what it’s going to be.”
Back in the station, Brokaw helps out where he can: washing trucks before meetings, cooking food, checking equipment.
When he turns 18 he’ll become a probationary firefighter and will be eligible to enroll in Firefighter I training through the Vermont Fire Academy.
Firefighters in Addison County must train for more than 200 hours before they become full department members with full duties and responsibilities.
At this point in his life, however, it’s difficult for Brokaw to predict whether he’ll stay in Lincoln. He’s thinking about college, he said. But wherever he ends up, he can imagine being a volunteer firefighter there.
If so, wherever he lands, his skills will be in high demand.
Volunteer firefighters in the United States donate about $140 billion in labor every year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
But around the country the number of volunteer firefighters has been falling for decades. In 2017 the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that between 1984 and 2014 their numbers had decreased by 12 percent — or more than 100,000. Rural areas have been especially hard hit, as young people move away to cities, or commute to work in them, leaving them with less time to volunteer.
The average age of volunteer departments is thus steadily increasing. Last year National Public Radio reported that the number of small-town firefighters over the age of 50 had doubled since the 1980s. They now account for roughly a third of all volunteers.
In Addison County, fire departments are struggling to recruit new volunteers, as well. And among three of the larger departments — Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes — only one cadet was serving at the time this piece was written.
Last month the Bristol Fire Department held a recruitment meeting at the new firehouse, but did not sign up any new volunteers. In 2017 Bristol had three cadets, Fire Chief Brett LaRose told the Independent, but they moved away or went to college.
“It’s amazing how little people know about what it takes to become a firefighter,” LaRose said.
Ten people around the county have recently signed up to find out, however, according to Middlebury Fire Chief David Shaw, who added that he expects that number to rise as the Aug. 24 application deadline for training approaches. Middlebury hosts Firefighter I training classes every year.
While some states have resorted to offering tax credits to volunteer firefighters, Vermont is not one of them.
For now, local departments will have to place their hope in people like Grady Brokaw, who joined to be of service to his community.
“I enjoy helping people in need,” he said. “I like being there for people.”
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