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Panel recommends creating two staff positions on Leverett Fire Department

LEVERETT — With the Leverett Fire Department facing the imminent loss of a number of its most experienced firefighters and a shifting town demographic profile, a study committee has recommended creating two salaried positions.

The Leverett Fire Department Study Committee presented a report to the Select Board last week outlining options to bolster the call force, including hiring a full-time firefighter and part-time chief to staff the station and respond to medical calls immediately.

“Having somebody staff the fire department during the day, when all the other firefighters are at work, would be really helpful because then that person would be available on a more consistent basis to respond to all the medical calls,” said Judith Weinthaler, the committee’s chairwoman.

The report comes as a result of research done by the committee between January and August and cites recruitment and long-term retention of personnel and the aging of the town’s population as the most pressing issues facing the call firefighting force.

According to Weinthaler, the department will lose five of the most experienced of its 13 members — the chief, the deputy chief, a captain and two firefighters — to retirement over the next few years. Compounded with the difficulty the department is having in retaining new firefighters for long periods of time, it may face a serious staffing problem in the near future.

“It’s not any surprise that small towns are having problems recruiting and retaining call or volunteer firefighters,” she said. “It’s a national problem, and Leverett is no different. We are struggling to maintain an adequate-size force.”

As members of the call force, Leverett firefighters receive hourly pay based on their attendance at weekly training sessions and time spent responding to emergencies. Most of the staff, Weinthaler said, perform firefighting duties on top of their full-time jobs, which restricts their availability.

“People oftentimes can’t leave their work. We have a teacher, we have a psychotherapist on the department, and they can’t just receive a beep on their pager and go fight a fire,” Weinthaler said. Additionally, Weinthaler said that preparing new firefighters to even enter a burning building takes about two years of regular weekly training, and it can take between five and 10 years to become adequately proficient. Many recruits may join for a year or two, but move on as their lifestyles change, she said.

“People might be very enthusiastic and join for a year or more, but sometimes students join then finish college and leave, or their family situation changes or they move. Life happens,” she said.

Stewart Olson, the department’s deputy chief, stressed the need for well-trained, long-term staff. “We can’t just have warm bodies,” he said. “There needs to be people who are dedicated to learning the process and responding to tasks when they happen.”

In addition to the staffing issues, the composition of Leverett’s population is also changing, with fewer residents falling into the department’s optimal recruitment age range of 20 to 40 years old, reducing the town’s pool of prospective recruits to 330 of the town’s 1851 residents.

According to Census data from 2010, 56 percent of the town’s population is over the age of 40, and the percentage of the population over the age of 65 has more than doubled from 7 to 17 percent since 1960. As a result, about half of the calls received by the department are medical emergencies.

In addition to the staffing recommendations, the committee advises discussing collaborating with other nearby towns, such as Sunderland, Shutesbury and Montague. It listed training, inspections, equipment testing and public outreach as aspects that could be shared. It also suggested creating a committee to improve public communication about the department.

Members of the Select Board said that they will consider forming such a committee and that the other recommendations may be brought before the annual Town Meeting.

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