No ‘backup’ causes alarm for CT volunteer fire departments

After years of struggling to recruit and retain members of volunteer fire departments, officials say it could soon become a safety concern as more firefighters retire with no one to fill their boots.

Fire chiefs say the problem has been growing for more than two decades, and it has caused towns with volunteer departments to be more reliant on mutual aid from surrounding communities.

Chief Charles “Chip” Weston, chief of Salem Volunteer Fire Department, said lack of volunteers has become a growing concern for New London County fire chiefs.

“How do we get people to volunteer?” he said. “How do we get people in? Do we challenge the state when there’s additional requirements put on us? This problem is not new to us, and we are constantly trying to work on it.”

In Portland, Chief Bob Shea said the issue was also front and center for fire departments in 2013 when he was the president of the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association. First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield, who is finishing her final term in office, said it was a topic of conversation in Portland when she first took office in 2003.

Shea said the age of volunteers is changing, and not enough younger people are joining, leaving those who have been in the service for decades to continue their work without a new cohort of firefighters ready to fill their shoes.

“These guys have been in it for a long time,” he said. “Some of them have fought almost every fire that we’ve had in town. They’ve seen it over 20 years, 25 years, and you get beat up. You get tired. I’d go into a structure fire 20 years ago, and I’d have seven or eight guys behind me,” he said. “You go into a structure fire now, you’re lucky to have two to start.”

‘You just don’t have that backup’

During the day, when most volunteers are working, Shea said mutual aid — especially from Middletown — becomes critical.

The shortage, Shea said, reduces the manpower at the scene, as well as delay the response time.

This can lead to safety concerns, Shea said, including meaning those firefighters who do respond are doing more. He said there used to be second and third stage teams that could relieve the first responders.

“What happens now with the lack of manpower is, your first initial suppression team is going in to fight the fire, coming out, changing bottles and going back in,” he said. “They’re working harder because you just don’t have that backup.”

Middletown Fire Department and a backup team from Glastonbury are automatically called to help with every confirmed Portland structure fire, Shea said.

“It’s proved to be a huge asset for us, especially during daytime fires,” he said. “We really couldn’t do it without them.”

Shea said it’s a concern to take those departments away from their own coverage areas, but noted that Portland has the same agreement with those towns.

“But, as a chief officer, you always think about that,” he said. “How much are we going to continue to have to rely on our partners? How much is that going to tax them, their budgets and manpower?”

Middletown Fire Department Chief Jay Woron said the agreement between the towns results in Middletown automatically sending two engines over the bridge.

“We used to do one, we give them two now,” he said. “A lot of volunteer organizations are having a little harder time during daytime responses.”

Middletown has three fire departments, Woron said, and one will cover another area whenever they go out on a call. Outside of town, he said Middletown has automatic or mutual aid agreements with Portland, Cromwell, Middlefield, Meriden and New Britain.

Woron said the labor contract for firefighters stipulates additional manpower is brought in to cover whenever the department is sent on a mutual aid call outside of town.

“If I were to send a three-person engine company to Portland right now, we would hire three back to man a spare piece of fire apparatus,” he said. “There is a cost to doing business with mutual aid, but we also receive mutual aid from all those communities.”

Woron said the mutual or automatic aid calls happen anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen times a month.

“Again, we’re a pretty busy fire department,” he said. “We use their resources coming back in for station coverage when we have fires, too. It’s a pretty reciprocal arrangement.”

While there are 50 members of the Salem Volunteer Fire Co., Weston said that does not mean everyone shows up when there’s an incident.

A standard fire engine or ladder truck holds four to six people, Weston said, and an average run for a call would generally see four people in a truck. Right now, he said, about half or less show up for calls.

“Sometimes, early-morning hours, if its a box alarm, we’re getting a driver only getting out with a truck,” he said. “So we are reducing our manpower probably by about 50 percent. If there’s truly a fire and we need the manpower, that causes us to rely on mutual aid to come in and make up that 50 percent.”

Weston said the lack of manpower raises safety concerns. He said standard firefighting rules dictate if there are two people inside fighting a structure fire, there should be at least two people outside prepared to go in.

Weston said a confirmed structure fire also requires a rapid intervention team, or fast team, which is called at the same time.

“Our fast team right now is coming from Bozrah and Lebanon,” he said. “There could be a delay of men responding. So, there is some safety concerns if there was someone that was in a house that needed us to go in and get them. I would possibly be sending manpower in without the two-in, two-out rule being followed.”

Weston said that means Salem tends to rely on mutual aid from surrounding towns during an emergency.

“The big problem comes when we have structure fires, when we have large events that require a large amount of manpower,” he said. “That’s when we usually call in mutual aid.”

Weston said Salem and every town in its area is calling in mutual aid when there is a fire.

“When you think about some of the more simpler ones, we run to fire alarms, we run to smoke activations where there might be burnt food while were trying to evacuate a house,” he said. “We only get three people, four people and one piece of apparatus. Is it enough to do the job? Yes. But it’s the same people over and over again, and they’re getting tired.”

Volunteer firefighters have day jobs, Weston pointed out, and there are a lot of times where they have to get up for work in the morning even though they were up all night responding to a call.

“So people are like, ‘Forget it. I’m not going out on a 2 o’clock call in the morning,”’ he said. “Next thing you know, you don’t have anyone responding. You have to re-tone (call again) for manpower, which means that we don’t have enough people that responded.”

Weston said approximately 1 out of every 10 calls will require a re-tone for manpower in Salem.

“Myself, I have 34 years in the service, and I’m ready to drop it,” he said. “I’m ready to go home and not have to go out anymore at 2 o’clock in the morning. I’m over 60. I’m tired. But there’s no younger people that are filling in.”

Incentives and the future

Shea said most fire departments offer stipends and other funding to encourage people to join, while others have a pay-per-call system. In Portland, there is a stipend for volunteers who respond to at least 10 percent of calls a year.

“Ten percent of calls per year is about 100 calls,” he said, noting there are between 900 and 1,100 calls each year in Portland.

Bransfield said retention of members is integral to public safety. The Portland first selectman said incentives, such as a “modest” pension program the town established about 20 years ago, are an important part of encouraging people to stay involved with the department.

“If they fulfill a certain level of points and years of service, they can receive a modest pension when they reach 65,” she said. “That is something that we fund every year.”

The town provides stipends to firefighters in leadership positions, Bransfield said, as well as $1,600 stipends to volunteer firefighters who go to 10 percent of calls per year.

Shea said recruiting and retaining members has been a focus of the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association. He said the group event obtained grant funding to put together a television ad encouraging people to join.

“We used that tool to reach out and see if we could do some recruiting,” he said. “Believe it or not, it worked. Here in Portland, we did get some feedback. Many departments did see some increases in activity as far as interest.”

Weston said Salem works with a fire administrator to organize the schedules of the full-time and volunteer firefighters, so there are not gaps in coverage. But as the issue is addressed in different ways, he had one clear message.

“Volunteer fire services need volunteers,” he said. “That’s really the bottom line.”