3-state seminar in Bernardston shares rural firefighting challenges

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-19-2023 2:18 PM

BERNARDSTON — Rural fire chiefs from Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire discussed the challenges of running volunteer fire departments during a Small-Town Fire Chiefs Seminar on Saturday.

“We are all in the same boat,” John Harlamert, chief of the Newport Fire Department in Vermont, said during the all-day event hosted by the New England Volunteer Fire & EMS Coalition Inc. at the United Church of Bernardston. “We all have the same challenges.”

Although participants joined in discussions about everything from National Fire Protection Association standards for fire chiefs to recruiting firefighters who are women, the single biggest challenge for a majority of department leaders who attended is a shortage of staffing. Many of the chiefs spoke about how their departments are shrinking as older volunteers retire and younger residents do not sign up to volunteer.

“All towns up in the hills are struggling with staffing,” said Plainfield Fire Capt. Matt Hardwick.

While it is clear in this area that staffing is a primary concern, Saturday’s seminar showed that shrinking departments are not unique to western Massachusetts.

Swansea Fire Chief Eric Hajder explained when he joined his department, it was the largest volunteer fire department in the state, with 135 people on its roster and an ever-growing waiting list. Now, the department has 65 people.

A dire need for more volunteers is particularly evident in Leyden, where Officer-in-Charge Nikolas Adamski is the sole member of the department. On Saturday, Adamski shared that he learned new recruitment skills and may have four people interested in joining the department.

One recruitment tactic discussed at the seminar is school outreach. Departments who have working relationships with public school teachers are able to start educating children at a young age about fire safety. As children get older, rural departments can welcome teenagers to their junior forces, and then get volunteers to sign up when they turn 18.

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Vernon (Vermont) Fire Chief Alex Dunklee warned attendees about having a succession plan.

“We are all stepping out of this at some point,” he said.

Dunklee said all departments must start thinking about how the younger generation of firefighters will take over leadership, and chiefs must start setting up a way to do that by creating documents with information on how to run the departments and numbers to call for assistance.

“We need to have a plan to have some sort of stability when we need to pass things along,” Dunklee said.

Jeff Campbell, chief of the Warren (Vermont) Fire Department, noted most of the members on his force are younger than 35 years old.

“They have proven themselves to the older guys,” Campbell said.

Many fire department leaders spoke about how they are in an era of rebuilding their forces. Rick Scott, fire chief in Worthington, said his department used to have 35 members; it now has eight. With support from residents and the Selectboard, Scott has been able to buy new equipment despite these dwindling numbers.

“We have been struggling the last few years,” Scott said, noting he is hopeful for the department’s future with a shifting culture.

With small departments across the three states represented, many spoke about the need for a strong mutual aid system to protect residents. Many department leaders mentioned how they completely rely on mutual aid for fire services, or other towns completely rely on them, to be successful in their mission of keeping the public safe.

“The big takeaway here is we are all in this together,” Northfield EMS Chief and Orange Fire Capt. Mark Fortier said. “We need to look bigger than the individual departments to be successful.”

Some departments do weekly training days with neighboring communities in their mutual aid network. These group training days allow crews to work more cohesively in times of emergencies.

Despite many of the issues discussed at the seminar, attendees spoke about a changing tide for volunteer departments.

“We have a brighter future,” said Joseph Maruca, chief of the West Barnstable Fire Department. “I have been coming to these meetings for 20 years or longer; I see a new generation of chiefs and the volunteer fire service is turning a corner.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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