As winter approaches, firefighters go on high alert. Heating is the number one cause of household fires, followed closely by cooking. Add extra candles, flammable greens, and more indoor smoking, and you could have a crisis. But will your town be able to respond to a fire? That depends on whether there are enough firefighters available, and those rosters are shrinking.
Most fire departments in Vermont rely on either unpaid volunteers, or volunteers who are paid only when they respond to emergencies. And many of those departments are scrambling for personnel. In the Upper Valley town of Norwich, for example, sidewalk signs appeared this fall to urge residents to join up. Its fire department needs 10-15 new recruits, but so far, only three have shown interest.
At a recent meeting in the firehouse, Lieutenant Chad Poston explained why he’s willing to drop everything, day or night, to answer an emergency call on his cell phone.
“It’s something that I got interested in high school and when I actually went and did it I got hooked, it’s a way of life, it’s a hobby, it’s part of me, it’s something I love doing,” he said.
Linda Cook became Norwich’s first woman firefighter in the early nineteen eighties, and since then several other women have joined her, driving trucks and fighting flames. But considering the hazards, the pay is not high—about $22 per hour of response work. So Cook says recruiting is tough, especially in bedroom communities like Norwich where residents often leave town every day to work.
“Or families find [that] when their children become teenagers ... they’ve got a large social life with activities, whether it’s being social or having sports. So it takes them away from having the time to do this,” Cook said.
Still, some people, like Lieutenant Poston’s wife, Theresa, make the time, despite a busy life. She teaches at a local gymnastic center but after work she’s taking the online and onsite training she needs to join the department.
On a recent night, she rode with others on a fire truck to learn how to pump water from the Connecticut River. And she’s been visiting local schools to drum up interest in emergency response.
“And I knew a lot of kids because they are my students: 'You’re a firefighter? That’s awesome!'”
But that wide-eyed enthusiasm apparently wanes as children get older. Nationally, about 69 percent of firefighters are volunteers, and their numbers have declined 13 percent since 1984. The average age of a firefighter is going up. So some departments are taking advantage of federal money to pay for signs and a recruitment video. But so far, staffing is still tight, and Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton warns that if the situation doesn’t improve, towns like his will have to start hiring full-time professionals.
And that, he warns, is sure to mean higher tax bills.