Friday, February 24, 2012

Vermont Firefighters

Being a firefighter, Tim Girard was saying, isn't easy.

"There's a background check, and you have to do training," said Girard, a officer of the Swanton Village Fire Department and the President of the Vermont State Firefighters Association.

And nobody, he said, does it for the money. Even though the Swanton firefighters were among the few in the state who get a small hourly wage, "you're not going to do it to get rich," Girard said. Some are attracted by "seeing the trucks go out, the firefighting gear, the red lights and sirens." For others, there's the "satisfaction of helping the community," whether by putting out a fire or helping a homeowner with water in her cellar, and….


So much for that. Even sitting there in his blue dress uniform, Girard was not in the Swanton Firehouse primarily to get interviewed. Firefighters fight fires, and that alarm was alerting Girard and the two other department members in the building that they had work to do.

In about a minute, all three of them had on their firefighting garb – waterproof overpants and long coats, heavy boots, brimmed helmets. In one more minute, up drove a pickup truck, yellow light flashing, of another member of the Department. Then another. And another. Maybe five minutes after the alarm sounded, the fire truck pulled out of the garage, headed for the fire.

Not, this time, in Swanton. Or even in the United States. The Swanton Department, Girard said, is part of the Franklin County International Firefighters Association, a Mutual Aid system that includes the Canadian towns just across the border, the site of this fire.

"We were lucky in the timing," Girard said later. The call came late in the afternoon, when enough members were home from work so a big enough crew could assemble quickly.

That's usually not a big problem for Swanton, whose fire department has 30 members on its roster, sufficient even though Girard said, "we're always looking for more."

Not every volunteer department in Vermont – or elsewhere for that matter – is in such good shape. There is a firefighter shortage in Vermont that is only likely to get worse over the next several years.

At last count, Vermont had 5,746 firefighters, the vast majority of them volunteers, according to the Department of Public Safety's Division of Fire Safety.

That's not enough. There are 249 departments, and to be fully effective, fire experts say, even a small department should have 25 members. Do the math. There should be at least 6,225 firefighters. That's "only" a shortage of 479. But that still puts the state's overall deficiency at close to eight percent, and the shortages are not evenly balanced, being worse, Girard said, in "the very small towns."

Firefighting officials are not in denial about the problem. "A lot of departments do not have enough people," said Michael O'Neill, the Executive Director of the Division of Fire Safety.

Thanks to Mutual Aid systems, this does not mean that homes and businesses in small towns are in danger of being reduced to ashes before the fire trucks arrive. Fire protection is one of the basic necessities of civilized society – public fire departments go back at least to 19th Century Britain – and is likely to be provided one way or another.

But one way might be more professional – and therefore more expensive – fire departments.

There's nothing mysterious about why Vermont's volunteer fire departments are short of volunteers. Both O'Neil and Girard point to the same social changes that have made it more difficult to recruit men (and, these days, some women) to join fire departments.

A few decades ago, Vermonters were more likely to own their own farms or to work in one of the many factories or shops right in town. If the siren sounded, they were only a few minutes away from the firehouse.

Now, many of those farms, factories, and shops are gone. People are working farther from home, many of them driving a half hour or more to work. When the siren goes off, they are too far away to respond in time.

Furthermore, in the rural areas, there simply are not as many people in what might be called their firefighting years. Vermont's population is rising – if slowly – but largely because of in-migration – the state has one of the lowest birth rates in the country – and many of the newcomers are retirees. Younger newcomers tend to flock to Burlington, which has a fully professional fire department, or its environs, where the firefighter shortage is not as acute.

Though firefighting officials hope that recruitment will pick ups as the economy improves, all indications are that the social trends holding down the number of volunteers – an aging population, job sites increasingly scattered -- will not just continue but accelerate. Finding enough firefighters could get more difficult in the future.

This does not mean fire officials can't do anything about the problem. They can, and they are doing it. For one thing, they are recruiting more actively. "Aggressive promotion," is what O'Neil calls it, and it includes holding open houses at fires stations and visiting high schools. But there's no simple "magic bullet" solution to the shortage, O'Neil acknowledged. "If there were, somebody would have found it," he said.

Firefighting has changed a lot since the days, as Girard put it, when "you just rode in the truck and put the wet stuff on the red stuff." Technology has made the job both a lot safer and a lot more complicated.

But it has not, O'Neil said, really reduced the need for people to do the work.

"The reality is that most of the advances have improved safety," he said, "but they have not necessarily improved efficiency."

One obvious answer to the manpower problem is more centralization. It's a subject Vermont fire officials discuss delicately. As with the question of Vermont's many school districts, O'Neil said, "no one wants to give up local control."

Girard noted that many rural rescue services have started hiring full-time dispatchers, a step some volunteer fire departments might have to consider as the number of people who have the time and inclination to sit in the fire station all day dwindles, perhaps to zero in some small towns.

At some point, as costs rise, several nearby small towns could decide to share that full-time, paid, dispatcher, which could be a step toward consolidating fire departments, and perhaps toward hiring a few more full-timers. Possibly, O'Neil said, a county-based firefighting system of fewer, larger, and perhaps more professional departments, looms in Vermont's future. At this point, no one seems to know much more that might cost.

Despite the shortages, O'Neil said, "Vermont is a pretty safe place," much safer, in terms of fire protection, than it used to be. Not that long ago, he said, "we had the highest fire death rate in the country." Now Vermont has one of the lowest, thanks to education and regulation. Firefighters held fire-prevention lessons at public schools. Laws passed under Gov. Howard Dean require all homes sold or re-rented to have hard-wired smoke detectors. As a result, there are fewer fires – prevention, after all, is the most effective fire fighting – and when there is a fire in a house, its residents are more likely to have time to escape.

Still, that house is more likely to burn to the ground unless an adequately staffed fire truck can get to it fast enough. Finding enough volunteers willing to face the hardships, inconvenience, and in some cases danger to ride on those fire trucks remains a challenge.

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