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Fire Chief: Town faces firefighter shortage

A public hearing on firefighter compensation is scheduled for June 22, at 7 p.m., at the Putney Fire Station. All are welcome to attend. A copy of the Putney Fire Department’s Internal Operations Report is available at www.putneyvt.org or contact the town offices at 802-387-5862.

PUTNEY—That the Putney Fire Department needs more members is nothing new. But according to an Internal Operations Report filed by the department in May, the problem has reached critical status.

At its current staffing levels, the department may not be able to adequately respond to emergencies.

Fire Chief Tom Goddard appeared at the May 24 regular Selectboard meeting to go over the report and make a suggestion: It might be time to start paying firefighters, and it will likely cost taxpayers at least $42,000 per year.

Because the Fiscal Year 2018 budget allocates only $11,000 for the fire department — but a public safety issue of this magnitude cannot wait until next year’s town meeting — Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard worked with Goddard to schedule a public hearing on the issue for June 22.

For the past few years, Goddard, Stoddard, and Selectboard members have discussed the decline in new fire department members, the availability of members to respond to calls, the retirement of long-standing members, and what to do about it. In the last 18 months, the department added some new faces to its ranks from a focused recruitment campaign, but it’s not enough.

Putney is not alone in this problem.

“For a number of years, emergency services leaders throughout the region have frequently indicated the fact that the overall number of members serving within individual departments has been declining, requests for service have been increasing, education and training requirements have become increasingly more time consuming, and at some point, departments will become completely overwhelmed,” the Internal Operations Report states, noting, “That time has finally come for the Putney Fire Department."

More calls, fewer responders

The comprehensive, 20-page report compares the department’s conditions in the present day with those 10 and 20 years ago. In narrative form with some figures and statistics, it addresses the state of the department, department demographics, staffing levels, requests for service, apparatus response times, member education and training, department operational aspects, municipal demographics, and “honest capabilities of the department."

Although the report notes today’s department is “blessed with a high quality, well maintained, and dependable fleet of apparatus,” and “[without] question, department members are a dedicated group of individuals” with strong support and appreciation from the community, the news isn’t good.

In 1997, the department had 27 members, and an average of 10.5 members responded to each of the 141 requests for service that year. Today, the department has the same number of members, but in the past few years, it responded to an average of 500 calls per year, with an average of three members — including the chief — showing up to each incident.

At the meeting, Goddard and firefighter Brian Harlow said during some recent calls, the three responders were “scrambling” until a truck from Westminster showed up 15 minutes later.

“This is where we’re at. It’s not appropriate, it’s not safe, it’s not realistic,” Goddard said.

Some of the challenges the report cites are a decrease in support from firefighters’ families and employers, and increased levels of personal responsibilities and incident-related stress responses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia.

In Goddard’s presentation to the Selectboard, he said he and his colleagues talked about what to do about the membership problem. One solution, Goddard said, is “to take the easy way out and do nothing and let things go as they are.” But, he said, “it was clear that’s not really an option."

Paying for service

What prevailed in their discussions, Goddard said, was that paying members according to a compensation scale during emergency calls is the best and most cost-effective solution.

Goddard assured town officials this isn’t about paying firefighters a full-time salary. “That was not even a consideration,” he said, noting it is “not realistic.”

By looking at average firefighters’ pay scales, and estimating recent years’ call hours, and adding a buffer, Goddard came up with a proposed budget for the plan: $42,750. This includes mutual aid costs, he said, some of which get reimbursed.

Should this plan get approved, “what do you do when the call goes out and five [firefighters] show up and you only need three? Are you paying all of those people, and if so, for how long?” asked Board Clerk Joshua Laughlin.

Goddard assured Laughlin it won’t be an issue in the short-term because of the shortage, but it could be something to discuss in the long-term.

Goddard said he hoped for it.

“If we have that problem, we’re going to be happy,” he said, and at that point the department would have a coverage schedule.

Other areas of concern the Selectboard, the town manager, and the chief discussed were how to pay firefighters while on calls who are also town employees, incorporating these new town employees into the payroll and workers’ compensation insurance systems, and where the money will come from.

Selectboard Chair Scott Henry expressed his support for Stoddard’s finding the money somewhere in the budget. Stoddard said some of the funding could come from the public safety committee’s budget.

Townspeople “have taken it for granted these services would be there [...] and you’ve made it quite clear we’ve reached a crunch here,” Henry said. “I have a hard time saying we’re going to spend 40-grand on dumpsters for recycling” and not on the fire department.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #411 (Wednesday, June 7, 2017).

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