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Concerns over fire coverage

Study: What volunteer forces face, possible solutions

Challenging, dangerous situations are nothing new for Franklin County fire departments. But those mostly volunteer departments in towns squeezed for resources face an increasingly difficult set of concerns, a new study finds.

The Fire Services study prepared by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for the Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association, points to a lack of volunteers, budgetary constraints and concern about what may be long response times, along with difficulty in recruiting and retaining firefighters, among a set of problems that call for more attention.

The 75-page report, paid for by a state District Local Technical Assistance grant, looks at the needs of the 29 departments, of which 26 rely primarily on paid call firefighters or volunteers. Only Greenfield, Turners Falls and Orange departments combine career and call/volunteer firefighters.

The departments raised concerns about the cost of replacing aging fire equipment, as well as maintenance and testing, but especially about the difficulty of attracting younger members to replace an aging and dwindling corps of volunteers in small towns where people increasingly commute elsewhere for work.

When it comes to response times, even in sparsely populated areas with rugged terrain, Franklin County fire departments report response times that are well within National Fire Protection Association standards, the study finds.

The county’s three combination departments have a quicker average response time than the call/volunteer departments. But “as some departments begin to rely more on mutual aid due to inability to recruit new firefighters or maintain a sufficient number of firefighters for response calls, there is a strong possibility of increased response times,” the study says. “This is an issue to monitor and address pre-emptively.”

The report, seen as the first step in a series of discussions on how to address problems faced by the departments, offers recommendations to address gaps in service by suggesting there may be ways to build on the strong collaborations that already exist, such as Tri-State Mutual Aid and centralized dispatch.

Collaboration

Collaboration could be enhanced in data and information sharing, combined purchasing, shared personnel and recruitment and retention efforts.

The report, which points to the possibility of further financial analysis of the departments and a regional fire prevention officer, according to the COG’s regional project planner, Ted Harvey, “is a great place to start the discussion on looking at fire service in the county and where we are doing well and where there are areas for improvement.”

Even as fire officials look ahead to working a second phase of dealing with the issues, Harvey said, some of the recommendations are already being implemented, such as applying for state funding for software for all departments, and working on procurement of services and equipment. Other areas for collaboration include some sharing of administrative functions across departments and “automatic aid agreements,” in which a department in a neighboring town responds immediately to an incident to which it may be close, as a way of reducing response time.

The departments, which have collaborated before to win grants to buy lightweight firefighting gear as well as safety ropes, lightweight hose, hand tools and thermal imaging equipment, have discussed with the FRCOG how to collaborate on shared fire inspection duties and testing of ladders and pumps, says chiefs association President Walter Tibbetts of Shutesbury.

“The big question is where do we go from here to address this,” said Tibbetts. “At this point, we’ve identified some problems and need to start looking at solutions.”

On the Web: www.frcog.org/pubs/regional_services/fire_report_2013.pdf

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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