The Town has given Malletts Bay and Colchester Center Fire Departments until September to merge into one fire department or transfer services over to town authority. Both proposals share the same goal: to consolidate town fire services.
Colchester currently has three fire districts—Fire District #1 (which provides only water services), Malletts Bay Fire Department (MBFD) in District #2, and Colchester Center Volunteer Fire Company (CCVFC) in District #3—in addition to sourcing St. Michael’s College Fire and Rescue for emergency services.
The Selectboard hopes that consolidating services will help response times and lend more support to firefighters.
Since Malletts Bay, Colchester Center, and St. Michael’s fire departments are all volunteer staffed, resources spread thin as needs increase. There are about thirty volunteers per department, but every second counts when fighting a fire. Especially as fires tend to double in size every passing minute, according to information presented to the selectboard at its June 11 meeting.
In the current system, “firefighters have to respond to the station, wait for enough firefighters to operate a piece of apparatus, get geared up, and then travel to the fire,” said Town Manager Aaron Frank. “The future approach will be to have staff at the stations, thereby reducing response times and allowing fires to be fought more quickly while they are smaller.”
According to Frank, fire services represent about 10% of the total property tax fund budget for the town and, overall, fire expenses have grown at 5.6% annually over the last decade—higher than both Colchester Police and Colchester Rescue.
In total, the town pays about one million every year for fire protection.
While this integration of departments should ease some capital needs, the town also intends to hire three full-time firefighters.
Malletts Bay is waiting on a response to their application for a SAFER Grant, which provides funding to help fire departments increase or maintain the number of trained “front-line” firefighters available to communities. With the SAFER Grant, the town would be able to ease into the cost of paying three full-time firefighters. If awarded, the grant will provide $456,000 in federal funds.
If the grant does not come through however, funding will fall to the town. That’s $265,000 total for all three positions.
Both proposals were sent earlier this year to prudential committees—the boards that oversee fire departments—and the Selectboard has met with Malletts Bay Fire Chief Stephen Bourgeois and Colchester Center Fire Chief Sandy Ladd since then.
The new fire department, whichever option is chosen, will become operational on July 1, 2020.
Option one proposes a merger of fire districts #2 and #3. If chosen, members of both fire departments and prudential committees would determine the new Fire Chief once services combine next year.
The next steps would then include determining a set of priorities between Malletts Bay, Colchester Center, and St. Michael’s College departments; developing a new training program for all staff; developing standard operating procedures; conducting inventory of all departments; and investigating current and future capital needs.
Option two proposes a transfer of fire services over to the Town, resulting in a town fire department. This means that, upon selection, the prudential committees would submit an Asset Purchase Agreement detailing Warranty Deeds for transfer of property, bills of sale for transfer of assets, assignments of contracts and leases, and agreements relative to outstanding debt related to fire services. The town would then hold a statewide hiring process for a full-time town Fire Chief.
The Town renewed one-year contracts with both fire departments to begin July 1, 2019, in order to allow time to carry out the chosen option and plan for the future. Both proposals include St. Michael’s fire services retained on contract.