Volunteer fire departments stretched thin

Last modified: Monday, January 06, 2014
In December, Worthington Fire Chief Richard Granger responded to 14 fire calls in 15 days. For some of the calls, he said, initially, he was the sole responder, though others joined within 15 minutes or so.

“I was only available because I am laid off from my job,” he said in a recent interview. “Thank God none of the calls were that bad.” Worthington, like other Hilltown fire departments that rely on all-volunteer squads, is finding recruitment of new members — and keeping longtime volunteers on board — challenging.

“I have definitely seen the recruiting numbers go down, even just within the last 10 years,” said Granger, whose department relies on 20 volunteer firefighters.

Some volunteers may be retired from paid work, but many others work one or two jobs, many of which are out of town, which makes daytime calls particularly difficult.

Granger, 48, who has been a member of the department since he was 15, said he became interested in firefighting through a family member.

“Back when my dad was chief, there were 10 to 15 of the guys in the department that worked right here in town,” he said.

Granger said that without mutual aid from the other Hilltown volunteer squads, it would be extremely difficult to effectively respond to large fires or emergencies.

That’s the situation in most small towns in the Valley.

“It’s quite an issue,” says Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, whose call force for a town of under 1,800 people is down to eight members — one of whom is away at college out of state and another of whom is on temporary leave.

Tibbetts, president of the Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association, says recruitment and retention are critical problems in most of the region’s tiny volunteer departments.

“It’s getting harder. Life’s getting more hectic and crazy, and there are more stresses on people and family, so there’s less time,” he said. “People certainly aren’t beating down the door asking to join.”

In Leverett, a short recruiting video aimed at drumming up interest has had scant results.

“It’s an issue for all small departments. It seems like the ones that stay on are the ones who have a vested interest in the town,” said Fire Chief John Moruzzi. “I’ve seen a statistic that for every four volunteers, only one will probably respond to a call. We have 13, but I’d really like to have 18.”

The eight-minute video — which also shows responses by Sunderland emergency medical technicians — features firefighters and EMTs painting a realistic picture of being a call volunteer, with both the personal challenges and rewards.

“One of the things that keeps me going is ‘What if that was my mom? What if that was my dad — and no one rolled out to help them?” says Jim Tower, a Sunderland firefighter, in the video. “We need people to roll out. We need you.”

Universal problem

Chiefs from other Hilltowns say the problem is getting worse.

In Cummington, where Fire Chief Bernard Forgea oversees a 12-member volunteer squad, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of people willing to volunteer.

Forgea said today’s volunteer departments are in “direct competition” with the demands of out-of-town jobs and responsibilities of family life.

“We used to have more local business and a lot more farms. Owners understood the importance of the volunteer department to their town, and they would let people out of work to go to a fire,” Forgea said.

“Now, with farms vanishing and business moving out of town, it is very tough to get and keep recruits.”

Along with the lack of time that people have to volunteer, Forgea said he thinks the basic small-town principles of participation in town business and serving the community have diminished over the years as well.

“It used to be that if you lived here, you understood that you had to contribute to the whole, that when you live in a community, it is not all take and no give,” Forgea said. “Today, it seems like people have the attitude of — I’m here, so you provide for me.”

The recent retirement of Lt. Delbert Robbins, a veteran firefighter with 38 years of service, has left the Cummington department down one highly trained and experienced member, said Forgea.

“These people don’t do it for money or glory — they do it because they care about their neighbors and they take pride in their service,” he said. “If we are going to promote volunteerism in these small departments and get people engaged, we have to at least recognize their service.”

Forgea said he worries that the time commitment may seem too overwhelming for some potential recruits.

“While people may think it is impossible to balance work, family and volunteer service, it is not only possible but it is very rewarding,” he said.

Like most small towns, Forgea says the department relies on word of mouth and having a presence at town meetings and other events to recruit new members.

Meanwhile, in Goshen four new recruits joined the ranks over the past six months, after several years of seeing no new members join while longtime firefighters aged and prepared to retire.

“Two junior firefighters recently joined because a department member recruited them, and a Highland Ambulance EMT from a neighboring town asked to join,” Fire Chief Sue Labrie said.

Sometimes, actually seeing the department in action is what encourages people to volunteer.

“One new member joined a week after we responded to an accident where he had rolled over his pickup truck,” Goshen Fire Capt. Bob Labrie said.

He noted that the department has 20 members — “13 males and seven females,” he said proudly.

The Labries, a husband-and-wife team, lead the department in part, by setting a strong example of the spirit of volunteerism. Both are also members of the National Ski Patrol, and volunteer at Ski Butternut in Great Barrington.

Neither had any firefighter training or experience when they decided to join the Goshen Fire Department over 20 years ago.

“We actually joined the department because we both felt we had something to offer in the way of first aid skills,” Bob Labrie said.

Like many other volunteer firefighters, both Labries work at other jobs that take them out of town, and the couple is also raising a family. To help address the dwindling numbers of volunteers and spark interest in the department, Goshen ramped up its recruiting efforts, using both social and print media, maintaining a Facebook page, sending recruitment letters to residents, and publishing articles in journals such as the Massachusetts Call Volunteer Fire Association.

The department also sponsors an annual open house, serving food and giving tours of the station and fire apparatus. Every October, Goshen Fire hosts a trick-or-treating party at the fire station. While the children are entertained, parents are shown around the station as firefighters laud the benefits of serving on the department.

Williamsburg Fire Chief Jason Connell said he feels lucky to have 31 volunteer firefighters in his department.

“Since July, we have had five new recruits join up,” Connell said. “But recruitment and keeping people on the department is always an ongoing struggle.”

Connell said new recruits sometimes discover the reality of the job is not what they expected, or that they cannot commit to the time requirements.

He noted also that there is a large age gap in the department, with several firefighters nearing retirement age, and several others being very young.

“What we are lacking is the middle-age range of experienced firefighters that can pass on their knowledge to the younger guys,” he said.

Acute shortage

The problem is especially acute in towns like Shutesbury and neighboring Leverett, where most people work out of town, so they’re unavailable during the day, and many have professional jobs.

“People moving into the area are more professional — professors, doctors, lawyers, psychologists,” Tibbetts said. “They’re not the kind of people who are going to typically get up at 3 in the morning and go fight a fire. Tradesmen, blue-collar people, more mechanically skilled people are typically the ones in the past that have done that more.”

Until July, Tibbetts had a 12-member department. But then two mem­bers moved out of town, and this month, another left the force temporarily and another retired. Finding new recruits is difficult enough, but finding someone with enough time to train, with the right skill set and inclination and the right age is another matter entirely.

“It’s harder to get young people involved. And as a bedroom community for Amherst and the university area, we’re less likely to get tradespeople or multi-generational firefighters that some of the towns a little farther away have,” he said.

Leverett has an arrangement with Shutesbury to automatically call members of both departments for structure fires, chimney fires, car fires and other major calls.

“A lot of people go to school, or have family matters, and it’s hard to put the time in, between people with families and other commitments. Some people think about it, and some try it, but it’s not for them,” said Moruzzi, Leverett’s chief.

Retention and recruitment is a significant enough problem that the Massachusetts Call Volunteer Firefighters Association has also been running spot announcements on radio and TV, and the issue is being looked at as part of a “fire services study” being done by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for the county chiefs association. A draft of that study, which looked at the needs of the 26 volunteer departments around the county, is expected to be presented to the association in January.

Tibbetts says the notion of neighbors helping neighbors and of doing your best have changed at a time when people often don’t know their neighbors, regulations have changed and weekly trainings go for three or four hours.

“There’s so much to learn, and it’s ever-changing,” he said.