Editorial: Sharing work, chiefs might be key in keeping fire depts. afloat

  • Firefighters check out equipment at the Turners Falls Fire Department. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

It is Fire Prevention Week, when many of our local firefighters preach the wisdom of installing smoke detectors and keeping matches and candles away from young children.

But our firefighters have another concern beyond helping us prevent fires. They worry their small departments, mostly staffed by volunteers, are buckling under the pressure of a heavily regulated, modern society.

Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan, who runs the county’s largest full-time force, last week discussed some of those pressures with the Selectboard in Charlemont, whose chief just announced his plan to step down. Strahan cited budget constraints, the lack of trained volunteer firefighters, increasing code enforcement requirements and the rising calls for ambulance and fire services in a town like Charlemont with a growing elderly population, a growing outdoor recreation industry and a low rate of young volunteers willing or able to put in the 100 hours of basic firefighter training.

Outgoing Charlemont Fire Chief Douglas Annear, who is 57, has been with the department since he was 15 years old, and has twice been chief. Annear said being chief is a part-time job that was supposed to take 10 hours a week; instead, it takes about 30 unpaid hours per week, given the state-required paperwork and the increased mandate for fire inspections and code enforcement.

Strahan said the situation Charlemont faces is not unique. He said fire chiefs have far more responsibilities now than they had 20 years ago. For instance, the state demands restaurants serving liquor be inspected annually and brought up to the newest fire codes. Also, he said schools are inspected for fire code violations twice a year and must hold fire drills at least four times per school year.

Strahan said duties now include looking for smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors as every home is sold. And public education about the fire codes and safety is another responsibility, something we will see a lot of this week.

Strahan said enforcement of fire regulations isn’t something that can be ignored. “What if something happens when you looked the other way?” he asks.

He notes that fewer people are volunteering to fight fires, compared to 25 years ago. Greenfield’s call staff used to be 20 to 26 and is down to eight active.

What’s the answer?

Strahan would like to see more regionalization of fire services across the county, especially the administrative burden. There’s plenty of precedent.

The county’s towns are typically protective, proud and parochial, but when it makes sense for the common good, they have joined forces. The 20-year-old regional government is a prime example of tiny towns coming together to provide joint planning, health inspections, building inspections, engineering services and more.

So maybe it is time for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to explore ways it or some other cooperative can help with the code enforcement and other inspection and reporting duties the state requires of all communities but that are especially burdensome to the smallest.

Strahan touched on another possible solution for Charlemont: Joint fire chiefs. Neighboring Heath is also looking for a new chief. Wendell and New Salem share one now and that seems to work.

Sharing resources provides another way to get the work done on tight budgets. For instance, fire departments can train together and cross-train with each other’s equipment. Strahan said Greenfield often combines with the Turners Falls Fire Department, not just on calls, but on sharing equipment. “Before I buy an expensive piece of equipment, I call Turners Falls. Maybe I buy one piece and they buy (another),” he explained.

Collective purchasing, collective training and sharing administrative employees through formal or informal cooperation are some ways small towns could continue to provide quality services in more demanding times.

The devil is always in the details, but maybe the time has come for the COG to find a grant to explore what form of cooperation would work best in Franklin County to prevent volunteer department burnout.