Firefighters: Volunteer coverage at dangerous low

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A group of firefighters gathered at the Colchester Selectboard meeting on July 11 to request funding for paid full-time positions at their respective departments, citing serious safety concerns. Currently, the Malletts Bay Fire and Colchester Center fire departments are run entirely by volunteers. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

More than two-dozen firefighters from the Malletts Bay and Colchester Center Fire Departments appeared before the selectboard last Tuesday to request funding for full-time positions, citing serious safety concerns under the current volunteer model.

“Our daytime coverage is at a dangerous low,” Malletts Bay Fire Chief Stephen Bourgeois told the board. “We know it can’t happen overnight, but we have to start sometime.”

Seventy-percent of MBFD calls come in between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Bourgeois said, hours when the 29-member department is minimally staffed. During the average call, he said only seven firefighters are able to respond.

“That’s a concern. If I didn’t bring it up as a chief, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” Bourgeois said.

By Bourgeois’ estimate, one full-time position with benefits would run the town $68,000 – $70,000 without accounting for workers’ compensation.

He plans to apply for a three-year partial funding program offered by the federal government, but anticipates asking the selectboard to build the remaining monies needed into its budget proposal.

Colchester Center Fire Chief Michael Chmielewski, also present at the meeting, said his department is dealing with near-identical struggles — and echoed the need for at least two funded positions in each department.

At Colchester Center Fire last year, 35 daytime calls went unanswered and had to be picked up by nearby departments like St. Michael’s, Chmielewski said. In Malletts Bay, Bourgeois headed to several calls alone.

“It’s something we need to do,” Chmielewski said. “Is it going to get worse down the road? Probably, in time.”

In a memo submitted to board members, MBFD detailed the additional benefits of bringing full-time firefighters on board, including handling complaints and questions from the public, keeping vehicle and equipment records up to date and offering fire prevention programs in schools, senior housing and healthcare facilities.

Towns with paid firefighters include Essex, Burlington, South Burlington, Williston and Underhill, according to Bourgeois’ memo.

Bourgeois said state training mandates are steadily increasing, making it even harder to recruit new volunteers. MBFD has stopped requiring an entry-level course, he said, out of fear their membership would be cut in half.

“People just don’t have the time,” Bourgeois said. “There’s more of a commitment training-wise to be certified … People just can’t make the commitment anymore.”

The discussion before the selectboard is a summation of the extensive talks that have taken place during the Fire District No. 2 Prudential Committee’s bimonthly meetings, Bourgeois said.

The district, served by MBFD, actually functions as its own municipality within Colchester, town manager Dawn Francis explained, with the ability to levy taxes and conduct special assessments.

Raising the funds for any paid positions through the fire district itself is possible, but highly complex, she opined.

The district would have to rely on the town’s assessment records, find a way to collect fees from district residents without a water meter and enforce unpaid collections, among other tasks.

“They’re in a bit of a quandary,” Francis said. “It gets really complicated pretty fast.”

Other first responders in town share the challenges faced by the town’s fire departments, Francis said in an email. Colchester Rescue employs six full-time staffers, with the more than 50 remaining members working solely as volunteers or per diem.

Colchester Technical Rescue, a squad deployed statewide during emergencies in water, ice or other hazardous terrain, is also made up of volunteers. Members may receive a small stipend based on hours worked, Francis said.

But it’s challenging to draw an equivalency, selectboard member Jacki Murphy pointed out at the July 11 meeting, because rescue departments can often bill for their services and generate a revenue stream, while fire departments cannot.

Still, Chmielewski said funding full-time firefighter positions could bring taxpayers some form of financial savings.   

Insurance companies assess the readiness of local fire departments when setting insurance premiums for homeowners and businesses — the better the rating, the lower the rate, Chmielewski said.

Selectboard members were ultimately receptive to the presentation, with several saying funding the positions would be a priority in upcoming budget talks. Ensuring members of the public are safe, selectman Herb Downing said, “is a no-brainer.”

“When something hits the fan, people are going to come back and say, ‘Didn’t you know this?’” Chmielewski said. “It’s becoming a problem that we have to address.”