Wilton fire department will be fully staffed for first time since COVID pandemic

WILTON — For the first time since the onset of the COVID pandemic, the Wilton Fire Department will soon be at full strength as it looks to fill just one more vacancy.

At its peak, Wilton Fire Chief Jim Blanchfield said the department was dealing with three vacancies, in addition to others out with COVID, in which firefighters would have to pick up an extra shift to address a vacancy on a specific line. The department uses a four-shift rotation with 24 line firefighters making up the full staff. However, Wilton has been down, as much as 25 percent at the height of COVID.

That is, until recently. 

Blanchfield said the department brought on new faces in August when probationary firefighters Mike Baumblatt and Zach Terenzenio were appointed to the department after completing the Connecticut Fire Academy Recruit Firefighter Program. 

"Those two just went on shift," Blanchfield said. "That leaves us with one vacancy."

But Blanchfield was excited to announce that the department has extended a conditional offer of employment to a candidate who very well could bring the department to full strength.

The current three vacancies came about when members retired and another was promoted to a front-office position. He said it was “difficult” to focus on hiring during COVID especially towards the beginning, though one person was hired in 2021 to help with the vacancies at that time.

While Wilton's fire department has operated down a few members for some time, Blanchfield said first responders faced even more staffing challenges during the height of the pandemic when even more officers were called upon to serve extra shifts with some contracting COVID-19 while serving the town.

"At the height of it, we were down approximately 25 percent of our workforce due to COVID, requiring those who could work to work many extra shifts," Blanchfield said. "That comes with a cost too, but at the end of the day, we have a job to do.” 

Blanchfield explained that being steadfast and malleable during the pandemic, like all other emergency services, were key in maintaining the department's level of service.

"Our people were excellent when it came to modifying how we managed maintaining social distancing in the firehouse, in the fire trucks, in people’s homes and businesses, as well as trying to ensure everyone’s families didn’t contract COVID from our workplace," he said.

As the department developed better response techniques to the pandemic, and as more resources became available to them through the state, dealing with three full-time vacancies on top of those firefighters needing to call out of a shift became a bit more manageable, Blanchfield said. But the goal was always to get back to full strength. And soon enough, Blanchfield hopes to achieve that goal by appointing one final staff member.

"It's definitely going to help," Blanchfield said, adding that the department is already starting to put together plans on naming a new deputy fire marshal ahead of current Deputy Marshal Kevin Plank's planned retirement. "From a long-term planning perspective, it helps immensely."