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The Volunteer Firefighter Is Disappearing in East Connecticut

“We had 28, but we lost another member on Monday due to time constraints. That’s 90% of the issue we face. This used to be a farming community where people lived and worked here and had a strong sense of community.”

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Shutterstock/Anthony Montoya
(TNS) - Pomfret Fire Chief Brett Sheldon is going all out on a recruitment drive, contacting local media and making his plea for help on social media.

The Pomfret Volunteer Fire Department — the only firefighters based in town — went from 67 members in 2001 to 27 as of this month.

“We had 28, but we lost another member on Monday due to time constraints. That’s 90% of the issue we face. This used to be a farming community where people lived and worked here and had a strong sense of community.”

The majority of Eastern Connecticut residents rely on volunteer firefighters — the family members, friends and neighbors who shrug on turn-out gear and strap oxygen tanks to their backs — to douse house fires, extinguish building blazes and respond to any of a number of other conflagrations.

But Windham County fire chiefs say it’s become increasingly difficult to field a full complement of volunteers on a 24/7 basis, especially during the daytime hours when civilian jobs frequently prevent firefighters from quickly answering a call.

Sheldon said Pomfret can now be described as a “bedroom” community, or one in which residents work in a different town or even state.

“So when they get home, they can’t be bothered,” he said. “People don’t know their neighbors and in some cases don’t want to know them.”

Sheldon said the dip in membership has required a sea change in how the department operates.

“I changed our mutual aid for things like structure fires from one or two other departments to six, just so I know we’ll have enough trucks to respond,” he said. “We’re using mutual aid for car accidents now. If it keeps going like this, we won’t be able to just rely on mutual aid and have to look at having paid members.”

Sheldon said he understands the practical benefits of volunteering with a local firehouse can be overshadowed by late-night wake-up calls and constant training, not to mention the real danger that comes with the job.

“But there’s the deeper idea of service to one’s country and town that is in some people’s blood, that they are with people they can rely on,” he said. “Even if you’re not from a military, fire or police family background, you get the chance to help your neighbor in their time of need. And that’s satisfying.”

In 1998, when Seth DeAngelis was appointed chief of the South Killingly Fire Department, he had about 31 volunteers on his roster. Today, he has 18.

“I technically have 18, but I might get three of those out the door on any given day to respond to a call,” he said. “That’s something the general public doesn’t know. They call the fire department and an engine or ambulance shows-up, unaware of which town those responders are from.”

The department, which covers roughly 20 square miles of Killingly, has been forced to rely more and more on mutual aid for routine calls, as has just about every other department in the region.

Mutual aid is the mechanism in which a neighboring fire department is called in to assist with a call or, more recently, to ensure a call is answered, even if it’s outside a department’s hometown.

“Ten years ago, mutual aid was typically used for a large fire, a major hazardous material situation or other big calls when a department needed extra help,” DeAngelis said. “That still happens, but it’s become the norm for mutual aid being used to respond to routine stuff, like medical calls.”

He said mutual aid can quickly result in a snowball effect of non-coverage, not to mention slower response times.

“If Department A is toned out three times, that takes about nine minutes,” he said. “If no one responds, Department B in the same town gets toned, which can take another nine minutes. By the time Department C, from another town, gets out, you’re talking about 20-25 minutes now before a truck gets on the road. With a fire in which everyone is already out of a house, that’s one thing, but if the call involves someone choking or a heart issue, that’s something else.”

DeAngelis said some of the main reasons for the decline in volunteers, and the subsequent need to rely on inter-departmental aid, revolve around time and money.

“People are now working multiple jobs to make ends meet and that takes time away from the firehouse,” he said. “Unlike many years ago, I have only one member that actually works in town and can easily leave for a call. I’m terrified that this situation could eventually lead to someone making a call and no one responds.”

The Killingly and Pomfret recruitment issues mirror national trends.

According to a 2020 report from the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteers comprise 67% of the total number of firefighters across the country. Of the 29,706 fire departments in the U.S., 19,112 are all-volunteer with those agencies protecting smaller communities of 10,000 or fewer residents.

The report found the number of volunteer firefighters hit an all-time low in 2017 — 682,000 compared to 897,750 in 1984 — and dovetailed with a tripling of call volume over a 30-year period.

“Major factors contributing to recruitment challenges include increased time demands, more rigorous training requirements and the proliferation of two-income families whose members do not have time to volunteer,” the report states. “Fire departments today are also expected to provide a wide range of services and multi-hazard response, creating further challenges for resource-constrained departments.”

Except for a few exceptions, most towns in Eastern Connecticut rely entirely on volunteer departments to answer fire and accident-related calls. Both Norwich and New London boast paid fire departments, with Norwich supplementing that service with five volunteer departments each located in different sections of the city.

The number of town-based departments varies widely in the region, with some municipalities — Pomfret, Canterbury and Eastford — served by one volunteer fire department. Others, including Killingly, Plainfield and Thompson, have between four and six firehouses within their borders.

Travis Irons, chief of the Plainfield Fire Co. #1, one of the town’s four volunteer departments, also serves as operations manager for Quinebaug Valley Emergency Communications, the main 911 dispatch hub for Windham County that covers 20 towns and 40 emergency response agencies.

“Mutual aid calls are definitely more the norm now,” he said. “Just about every municipality has some sort of automatic aid agreement for daytime fire and fire-related calls like motor vehicle accidents. It might take calls to two different departments to put together one capable crew.”

Irons said dispatchers will always find a crew to respond to an emergency.

“Though it might not be comprised of someone from your town,” he said. “That might not be noticed from by a caller, but I try and instill in my department the idea that residents pay their fire district taxes each year in good faith expecting that in their time of need, we’ll come.”

Irons said his department is lucky to have a couple of retired guys on the volunteer roster, as well as a captain still able to work from home due to COVID-19 employment rules.

“I do dread the day when (the captain) has to go back to work in Groton,” he said. “Our objective in Plainfield is to have someone on the scene in seven minutes and that’s something we’ve been able to do.”

Irons said he suspects the lack of volunteers can be traced to societal issues, with younger residents less interested in putting in the years of training necessary to become a fully qualified firefighter.

He said several local volunteer departments in the region already pay stipends, which can range in amounts, to fully certified members willing to commit to being in a firehouse for a specific shift.

“I think we’re going to be seeing more of that because it works — you always have a person on and ready to respond,” Irons said. “I’d hate to see the end of the volunteer fire department, but I think the time’s coming, maybe not during my career.”

Many fire departments also include an EMS component, such as an ambulance, though cost and recruitment issues have led to smaller, more rural towns scrapping that in-house pre-hospital care service in favor of other options, including adding paid EMS workers to shifts.

In 2020, the towns of Pomfret, Eastford and Hampton entered into a paid contract with K-B Ambulance that calls for the private EMS firm to station an ambulance at the Pomfret Emergency Operations Center. Officials said the move was part of an effort to reduce response times after the Eastford and Pomfret volunteer ambulance corps disbanded due to a lack of volunteers.

Most volunteer firefighters get a stipend, at least enough to cover their gas costs, though sometimes more. There are also tax abatements offered by towns for volunteers that meet certain call response thresholds.

“The public expects the same level of service from a volunteer department as from a paid service — and they should — but it’s challenging,” DeAngelis said. “The level of training has increased and you don’t have that same generational commitment as we saw decades ago.”

DeAngelis said responding to a working fire or cliff rescue requires several levels of certification, most taking months to acquire through weekend and night classes. He said retention is as much as a problem as recruitment, as volunteers frequently leave the department after only a few years, many times to take a paid firefighter job.

“I’ve got an open officer position for which I’ve gotten two applications,” he said. “Before this, I’d never seen less than four for a job like that.”

DeAngelis said he sees no quick fix to the volunteer situation.

“Other departments have offered paid incentives that haven’t worked, so I think any substantive change will involve consolidation of departments — and that would be a hell of a fight to get done — or having a mix of part-time paid and volunteer crews,” DeAngelis said.

Even changes to volunteer fire services that don’t involve consolidation can raise hackles among the rank-and-file.

In Norwich, a February fire services study recommended the creation of a new fire services director to help coordinate the training, budgets and equipment upgrades for the city’s paid and five volunteer departments. That idea was met with derision by volunteer fire chiefs and was later cut from a budget proposal. The study also urged better integration — but not consolidation — of the city’s firefighting agencies.

John Filchak, executive director of the Northeastern Connecticut Conference of Governments, the regional planning agency for 16 towns in Windham and New London counties, said his group has commissioned studies on how best to address volunteer issues within municipal ambulance departments as part of an effort to reduce response times.

“Many of those issues and recommendations also correlate with volunteer fire department problems,” he said. “The number of volunteers available in a town varies considerably depending on the day of the week or even the time of day. Compare a late Saturday afternoon when roads can be full of flashing blue lights to a Tuesday at 11 a.m. when you might get two emergency vehicles on the same road.”

Filchak said legislation was recently passed directing the state’s Office of Policy and Management, OPM, to study the feasibility of merging or consolidating fire districts and departments.

“Ten years ago, it would be almost unheard of to hear fire officials talking about consolidation as folks take pride in the history of a firehouse or ambulance corps — and rightly so,” Filchak said. “But just consolidating 35 departments into six doesn’t solve everything.”

Martin Heft, undersecretary for intergovernmental policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management, said state lawmakers earlier this year directed his department to conduct a study regarding the “obstacles to merging or consolidating the fire districts or departments of two or more municipalities” and submit a report of such findings by January 1.

The study group will include municipal leaders and a representative of the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association of Connecticut.

“The point of the study is identifying obstacles, not presenting answers at this point,” Heft said. “While recruitment and retention aren’t the main subject of the study, those things all tie together. The lack of volunteers across the U.S. is an obstacle toward improving services.”

John Penney can be reached at jpenney@norwichbulletin.com or at (860) 857-6965

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