Our Bennington County volunteer firefighters: Fewer of them, but proud as ever
BENNINGTON >> Where some emergency departments pay their workers, others save lives and property on their own time, particularly where our region's fire departments are concerned.
But today, fewer people are volunteering to fight fires and more.
Aside from a full-time job and a potential family, the time demands for a volunteer firefighter include "emergency calls, training, meetings, maintenance of the stations and equipment, and fundraising," according to the U.S. Fire Administration's publication called Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services.
Bennington Rural Fire Department Chief Wayne Davis vouched for this by recognizing members who have two jobs and don't have "the free time that they used to [making it] hard for people to get by."
More than likely, a volunteer firefighter has a full-time job from which they can't leave to attend to a structure fire or false fire alarm call. They also don't may not have the time to devote toward completing the necessary amount of training hours required each year by the state.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the United States Fire Administration documented that in 2013 there were an estimated 354,600 volunteers versus 786,150 career firefighters. Furthermore, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined from 7.88 per 1,000 people nationwide in 1986 to a rate of 6.43 per thousand in 2014.
In Bennington County, there are seven volunteer fire departments, and most of their rosters are not filled to capacity. But in many cases, departments have volunteers with longevity and dedication.
Shaftsbury Fire Department — formed in 1931 — has an active member who is 92 years old and who started his service 75 years ago.
Charlie Becker was the first person in the state to be honored with a national volunteer award through the Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. Becker joined the department because his grandfather volunteered and because he enjoyed the comradeship.
"I served as a chief for 16 years and a state instructor for 45 years," he said. "I just thought it was something to help out with."
Becker worked in schools most of his life and eventually started his own firefighting equipment business. In the department, he drives the apparatus and runs the pumper.
Volunteerism is declining because the technology age is taking up people's time and providing more opportunity to do other things, Becker said.
"There was not so much to do to take up your time back then," he explained. "[Training] is a burden for the new people today. It requires a lot of schooling these days. Many times, young married people don't have the time to put into it. There is a problem."
Nineteen-year-old Jazmine Hollister has been a member of the Bennington Village Fire Department since she was 13 and could participate in the junior program.
For Hollister, she always wanted to give back to the community and help people. Her service roots go as far back as her grandfather who was a fire chief, her uncle who sold fire trucks, and her dad, brother and two aunts who also served on the volunteer fire squad.
Hollister acknowledges that it's the smaller aspects of a fire call that makes her value her service the most. For example, when "the owner says, 'There's a picture of my loved one in there. Can you get it for me?' And we're able to get that out," she explained. "That makes the biggest impact on their life and gives you such a great feeling — that the smallest things leave the greatest impact. Being able to impact people's lives in such a positive way."
The young firefighter said if people want to volunteer and join the fire department it's as easy as visiting the station.
"People are always welcome at the fire station and they can always find someone there to give out info for one of our chiefs to help them," she said. "A lot of people don't know who to talk to about it."
Some firefighters came on board because of family tradition or by mere exposure to the work. Fire departments may not be the social hubs they once were, and those looking for camaraderie may search elsewhere nowadays, however benevolence still remains among the volunteers.
Shaftsbury Fire Chief Joe Vadakin said his father brought him into the act as a junior firefighter at age 15.
"I did it more for him. Once I joined it was like 'Wow, this is a real camaraderie, I'm one of the guys.' As you grow older, you kind of see how you're helping your community," Vadakin said.
He reflected on the significance of a volunteer firefighter.
"If someone is at their worst, you're trying to be the best," he said. "You're helping people whether it's a fire or car accident. There's a real sense of pride in what you're doing, helping your neighbors and people you know. It evolves and you really don't know what you're getting into. That's what I tell people, just give it time and don't expect to know everything at once. You're not a superhero, so take it in. It really does grow on you." Training
For some, the amount of training needed to become a volunteer firefighter is a hurdle. In Vermont, volunteers become certified through the Firefighter I and II exams as well as 24 hours of training through the Vermont Fire Academy.
Arlington Fire Chief Jamie Paustian said requirements are up to 225 to 300 hours per year, which amounts to one night per week for four hours and then an eight-hour exam once a month. However, the number of hours can vary by department.
For the Manchester Fire Department, volunteers perform two, three-hour trainings each month with the addition of a 139-hour course.
"Within Shaftsbury, 75 percent of the meetings are drills. There's three drills a month and of those three you need 75 per year," said Shaftsbury Fire Chief Vadakin. "Then for the state of Vermont, you have to go through the course which is 130 hours or more."
The training demand has only risen, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In the 1960's, the minimum required hours were under 30 and one would learn on the job. Today that isn't acceptable. Training also includes an annual hazardous materials course, in addition to regular drill nights and state-mandated hours.
Increased training hours are due to higher standards being adopted nationwide, federal requirements and the addition of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the broader range of services offered by firefighters, and recertification demands.
Part of the job
Bennington Village Fire Department volunteer Nico Grande doesn't mind the training hours because he understands that it's required for firefighters to be able to properly do the job.
"It's all based on what you want to do in the organization, if you want to be able to actually go into a building and fight a fire there is a significant amount of training and the training never ends," Grande said. "There's always new things you can learn and new techniques, but it's worth it and they're great skills to have and learn and you could have a lot of fun while doing it."
His training includes recreating structure fire scenes to prepare for the actual occasion. In full gear and with air tanks on volunteers, in pairs, crawl through large industrial tubes. A fog machine creates a smoke effect and plastic wrap is placed on their masks to decrease visibility and make the exercise more realistic.
"Fires don't care who you are. It's important to practice and study to stay current with tactics and approaches," said Bennington Fire Chief Jeff Vickers. "Fires are down, which means there is less real-life experiences for training and that means the danger is higher."
Times have changed
In the past, volunteers were responsible for fire protection, inspecting chimneys and raising money to purchase equipment. But duties have changed to taking care of fire alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, broken water pipes, gas leaks, medical emergencies, car accidents, water rescue and bomb threats. As time evolved, so did the emergencies firefighters had to learn to handle.
Bennington Rural Fire Chief Davis said that traditional fire calls are decreasing while other types of calls are rising. Last year his department responded to 18 building fires, five vehicle fires, and nine brush fires, but 54 motor vehicle accidents, 20 hazardous materials spills, 18 agency assists, 40 service calls for alarm activations, and seven miscellaneous incidents.
In 1980, the National Fire Protection Association documented 3 million actual fires out of 10.8 million emergency calls. In 2013, calls rose to 31.6 million but only 500,000 were structure fires. Nationwide, 39 percent of fire departments provide no emergency medical services, while 45 percent provide basic life support and 15 percent offer advanced life support.
Locally, at least in the case of the Shaftsbury Fire Department, the trend follows the national line. In 2001, Shaftsbury responded to 68 emergency calls and had 40 active volunteers. In 2011, its calls for service nearly doubled and the department had three fewer volunteers, according to Shaftsbury Fire Chief Vadakin.
It's not easy to be a volunteer firefighter with the weight of having a family and full-time job.
Vadakin works at Bennington College as a locksmith and said he is fortunate to be able to leave for fire calls during the day.
"As far as the way it is now versus a while back, there aren't a lot of guys who work in town — only three or four of us," he said. "A lot of our guys work out of town, so we rely on other departments to help us out."
Chief Phil Bourn of the Manchester Fire Department agrees with Vadakin in that during the daytime the department is strapped for men because employers can't afford to let employees leave for a call.
"It's tough to get guys out of bed at 1 in the morning, but someone's gotta go," Bourn said. " We're desperate. ... It's everywhere."
Depending on the company, an employer will pay for the time the firefighter is gone, even if it's half the day, Bennington Village Fire Chief Vickers said.
Shaftsbury Firefighter Becker explained that he was typically allowed to leave his day job(s) in order to fight fires, but noted that some organizations "don't take kindly to that."
Where some employees have this availability, others do not, and without assistance from nearby departments, it can hinder the volunteer's participation.
Instead of being able to punish a firefighter for not showing up to a volunteer event such as a fundraiser, training session or even a fire call, some departments have adopted a point system, pay-per-call system or a Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP).
In Manchester, volunteers accumulate points that represent a dollar value for attending calls. For example, one could receive four points for being at a fire call for an hour and it equals $18. This is an effort to encourage members to stay active. Some departments have a large number of members, but only a fraction regularly participate.
"I don't know if that'll bring more volunteers in or not. "They're not doing it for the money and nobody does, but it's a stipend. We're trying all avenues," Bourn said. "We're asking politely to come. You beg and nothing seems to work."
While awarding points for participation is one option, LOSAP is another. It's similar to a retirement program, but focuses on retaining and rewarding volunteers in an emergency service organization and offers funds based on the longevity of an individual's service.
According to VFIS, a division of Glatfelter Insurance Corp. which insures emergency service organizations and offers LOSAP, more than 70 percent of emergency service recruits quit within five years. And for every 10 recruits, fewer than three will stay with the organization after 10 years.
An average annual LOSAP contribution per active volunteer amounts to $500. By implementing LOSAP, volunteers get equipped with pre-retirement death and disability benefits as well as a monthly income once retired.
"You have to do something. You do something that you think you might enjoy like helping out and something that would benefit the community," Becker concluded.
—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.