A tale of two Fire Departments
DEERFIELD — From the look of their individual fire houses, the Old Deerfield and South Deerfield fire departments look a world apart.
The Old Deerfield fire house is a 65-year-old barn building on Old Main Street that houses four trucks, while the South Deerfield fire station is a modern 21-year-old building housing seven trucks.
The two fire districts’ operations, training and equipment reflects their demographics and funding. The two districts have been separate for decades and have since grown apart.
With more taxpayers and businesses, South Deerfield has become a much bigger department than its sister in Old Deerfield, which draws from a limited taxpayer pool and serves the tax-exempt private schools and history museums located there.
The differences are not unusual. The training and equipment of volunteer departments vary from town to town.
The South Deerfield Fire District on Greenfield Road is an on-call volunteer department, but its facilities and operations rival that of a full-time department.
It serves the southern part of town, which has the higher proportion of taxpayers and businesses. The department averages 225 calls per year. The current roster includes one full-time firefighter and 21 paid on-call members.
Training for its members is extensive with South Deerfield firefighters spending a total of 1,592 hours training in 2013. All recruits complete a comprehensive training program before being authorized for call response, South Deerfield Fire Chief William Swasey said. Before joining the force, a volunteer is required to fill out an application and complete a physical. Once everything is clear, probation may last about 18 months.
The district follows state training standards. Training is a mix of classroom work and hands-on practical experience at regularly scheduled drills as well as optional drills held throughout the year, Swasey said.
The fire department provides a mandatory drill night on the third Tuesday of every month. On every Sunday morning at 9, a volunteer training is offered at the fire house, which typically eight to 12 volunteers attend.
The South Deerfield firefighters also train as the Rapid Intervention Team for the Conway, Sunderland, Whately and Old Deerfield fire departments. As an RIT team, a company of South Deerfield firefighters stand by to assist and rescue other fallen firefighters if necessary.
South Deerfield Fire Department, unlike many small town departments, has an aerial platform truck, which requires the firefighters to do specialized training for fighting fires from the lofty perch. This involves classroom training and practical experience specific to that piece of apparatus, such as strategy and tactics involving aerial firefighting and rescue situations.
Meanwhile, the Old Deerfield Fire District relies on a firefighting training course, called Minute Man Volunteer Firefighting. Fire Chief Chet Yazwinski said it is similar to the state class.
Yazwinski said his department tries to train twice a month. He said the probationary period varies depending on the volunteer. As long as the volunteer completes Firefighter 1 and 2 training, he or she can serve. It can take one to two years to complete, depending on individual schedules.
He didn’t have the specific training hours, but he said the district reserves $2,000 for training. The district has 16 to 20 active volunteers, some of whom come from out of town. On average, the district could get four to five new volunteers and lose that amount each year, Yazwinski said. Last year, the department had 101 alarms, 59 of which were for the private schools in the area.
As neighbors, the two districts often provide back-up and mutual aid.
In 2013, the South Deerfield Fire Department responded to the Deerfield Fire District 10 times. Six of these responses were for automatic aid to calls in the Deerfield Fire District on Interstate 91 and the remaining four were for mutual aid requests, Swasey said.
The Deerfield Fire Department responded mutual aid to the South Deerfield Fire District one time in 2013.
Both districts, like many fire departments across the country, are challenged by declining volunteerism.
“Volunteerism has seen a steady decline in the fire service over the past 20 years,” said South Deerfield Chief Swasey. “Recruitment and retention are a significant challenge faced by call fire departments in this area as well as across the United States. The requirements are much more stringent and time consuming than what they used to be.” As a result, in the past five years, South Deerfield’s training has increased to include ethanol blended fuels, electric vehicle safety and the implementation of rapid intervention teams, Swasey said.
With more funding, the South Deerfield Fire District’s equipment far surpasses Old Deerfield’s. The total South Deerfield district budget is $423,445 compared to Old Deerfield’s $80,000 budget. South Deerfield has seven trucks. Old Deerfield has two fire trucks and two brush trucks.