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Volunteer fire forces see fewer recruits

A fire alarm sounding is never a good thing. But worse than that, is the problem small towns face in recruiting enough members to their volunteer departments to respond the alarm.

“It’s quite an issue,” says Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts, whose call force for a town of under 1,800 people is down to eight members — one of whom is away at college out of state and another of whom is on temporary leave.

Nor is the problem limited to his force, says Tibbetts, who as president of the Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association sees recruitment and retention as a critical problem in most of the region’s tiny volunteer departments.

And, he adds, “It’s getting harder. Life’s getting more hectic and crazy, and there are more stresses on people and family, so there’s less time.”

The problem is more acute in towns like Shutesbury and neighboring Leverett, where most people work out of town, so they’re unavailable during the day, and many have professional jobs.

“People moving into the area are more professional — professors, doctors, lawyers, psychologists,” says Tibbetts. “They’re not the kind of people who are going to typically get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and go fight a fire. It’s tradesmen, blue-collar people, more mechanically skilled people are typically the ones in the past that have done that more.”

Until July, Tibbetts had a 12-member department. But then two members moved out of town, and this month, another left the force temporarily for personal reasons and another retired. Finding new recruits is difficult enough, but finding someone with enough time to train, with the right skill set and inclination and the right age is another matter entirely.

“Today’s youth nowadays, if you can’t do it on your iPad or iPhone, they’re not interested in doing it. It’s harder to get young people involved. And as a bedroom community for Amherst and the university area, we’re less likely to get tradespeople or multi-generational firefighters that some of the towns a little farther away have.”

Leverett Fire Chief John Moruzzi adds, “It’s an issue for all small departments. It seems like the ones that stay on are the ones who have a vested interest in the town. I’ve seen a statistic that for every four volunteers, only one will probably respond to a call. We have 13, but I’d really like to have 18.”

Moruzzi, whose department has an arrangement with Shutesbury to automatically tone members of both departments for structure fires, chimney fires, car fires and other major calls, has a recruitment video on the town website, prepared by a member who made it as a media project at Greenfield Community College. But he, too, has since left the department, and the video — which also shows responses by Sunderland emergency medical technicians — has drawn few responses of its own.

“A lot of people go to school, or have family matters, and it’s hard to put the time in, between people with families and other commitments. Some people think about it, and some try it, but it’s not for them,” he said.

Retention and recruitment is a significant enough problem that the Massachusetts Call Volunteer Firefighters Association has also been running spot announcements on radio and TV, and the issue is being looked at as part of a “fire services study” being done by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for the county chiefs association. A draft of that study, which looked at the needs of the 26 volunteer departments around the county, is expected to be presented to the association in January.

Among the recommendations to be looked at in a follow-up study for which the COG is seeking a grant may be better recruitment and retention programs, as well as regionalization of services and spontaneous mutual aid in other neighboring towns.

Although some people are drawn to the excitement of responding to an emergency, Tibbetts said, “People certainly aren’t beating down the door asking to join. People think they’ve got to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They think, ‘I’ll have to drop everything I’m doing at any given time, leave children’s birthday parties, leave Christmas dinner, in the middle of the night to help somebody out for next to nothing: ‘Do I really want to do that? Get up at 3 or 4 o’clock in morning to go on call, then miss all that sleep and still have to go back to work in my regular job?’ It’s hard to get somebody to do that.”

Leverett’s eight-minute video features a variety of firefighters and EMTs painting a realistic picture of being a call volunteer, with both the personal challenges and rewards.

“One of the things that keeps me going is ‘What if that was my mom? What if that was my dad — and no one rolled out to help them?” says Jim Tower, a Sunderland firefighter, in the video. “We need people to roll out. We need you.”

Tibbetts says the notion of neighbors helping neighbors and of doing your best have changed at a time when people often don’t know their neighbors, regulations have changed and weekly trainings go for three or four hours.

“It used to be a bunch of guys would get together, throw on some gear and do the best they can and whatever happens, happens. Now there are so many regulations governing minimum training, and everybody’s worried about liability, too: ‘Do I want to risk my life to get sued by somebody?’ It’s getting to where it’s not a profession that’s so enticing.”

Tibbetts said it takes a couple of years of training before a volunteer is completely confident responding to a fire.

“There’s so much to learn, and it’s ever-changing,” he said, with new building codes and the different ways that fires behave in different situations.

“Fires burn differently now than they did before,” Tibbetts said. “Thirty years ago, it took a room and its contents about 30 minutes to reach flashover stage. Now it’s happening in under five minutes, because construction is more efficient, holding the heat in. A big part is what everything is made out of, changing the ways that fires behave: plastics and synthetics … they’re all basically a solid gasoline, instead of wood and natural fibers that weren’t burning as quickly or as hot. Fires are burning hotter than they ever did, and burning quicker. All these things are changing.”

Adding to the problems for sparsely populated rural towns are the distances involved, affecting response time by a limited number of responders — especially if they have to come from outside of town.

In Shutesbury, which covers 27 square miles, “It can take several minutes to get to certain parts of town, and we’re going basically downhill anywhere we go,” said Tibbetts. “You’re taking a 40,000-pound truck, with four or five people on it downhill in a snowstorm on curvy roads, and you’re trying to do due diligence, going very slowly and cautiously, but you’ve got to get there in a hurry. And if the call comes in the middle of the night, you’ve got to wake up, get dressed, get in your own vehicle, get to the station safely, then get dressed in your gear, get in the truck and drive to scene. That all takes a little bit of time.”

On the Web: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgnuugLs2vA

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

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