PUTNEY—Attendance was somewhat sparse at the special Selectboard meeting on June 22 to explore solutions to the Putney Fire Department’s staffing woes, but all who spoke did so in support of the town’s firefighters.
The question remains: How to retain and attract firefighters?
According to a 20-page internal operations report the fire department issued in May, the situation is critical, and public safety may be compromised if something isn’t done. And soon.
In late May, Fire Chief Tom Goddard appeared before the Selectboard to present and discuss the report. The gist of it is, the fire department responds to more and more complicated calls than it did 20 years ago, and it desperately needs more members to maintain public safety.
The educational and training requirements for firefighters have also greatly increased, Goddard said, which demands an even bigger commitment from the department’s members.
Being a firefighter is “not a hobby anymore,” Goddard said.
The solution Goddard and his department propose is to pay firefighters an hourly rate when they respond to a call.
This may help retain current members who experience financial hardship when they lose sleep or work to answer fire and EMS requests. It may also help attract new firefighters who balk at joining because of the same concerns.
By looking at average firefighters’ pay scales, estimating recent years’ call hours, and adding a buffer, Goddard and his staff came up with a proposed budget for the plan: $42,750. This includes mutual aid costs, he said, some of which get reimbursed.
Because the Fiscal Year 2018 budget allocates only $11,000 for the fire department — but a public safety issue of this magnitude can’t wait until next year’s town meeting — Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard worked with Goddard to schedule a special Selectboard meeting and public hearing on the issue on June 22.
At the June 22 meeting, held at the fire station, Goddard began by assuring the public, “I’m the one having to speak tonight [but] everything we’re going to talk about, everything [in the report] is not coming from just me. It’s coming from the entire department as a whole.”
Goddard pointed out this problem isn’t just a Putney problem, it’s a regional issue, and it affects individual towns, as well as mutual aid. He has heard from numerous departments in the region — in Keene, N.H., and beyond, to Wilmington and Londonderry, to Rockingham — “we all have significant, significant staffing issues,” both in the decline in members and the number of firefighters who respond to calls.
In Putney’s case, having so few active members hinders their ability “to move apparatus out of the station” when responding to emergencies.
This problem is also nothing new, said Goddard, who pointed out the issue was first identified in his department 20 years ago.
’A dying breed’
So, why has it gotten so bad?
Goddard offered one reason.
“Volunteerism is a dying breed. It’s not happening any more. We don’t have people knocking down the doors” to join the fire department, said Goddard.
“Overwhelmingly, people don’t have time,” he added, noting many people work two or three jobs, they are single parents, or they are responsible for staying home with their children while their spouses are at work.
“There’s no finger-pointing [...] or blame” for people who can’t help out, he said.
“What are we collectively going to do — all of us — to make this better?” Goddard asked the crowd.
Some of the discussion at the meeting centered on the percentage of calls the department makes to Putney’s private schools, which pay no property taxes to the town as per Town Meeting vote.
Goddard and Stoddard noted the schools help pay for the bond that funded the new fire station. Goddard said the calls to Landmark College and the Putney School decreased noticeably after he and his staff worked with school officials on safety and ways to lower emergency calls.
One attendee expressed concern about members burning out and “system collapse."
Goddard said the report’s data supported those fears.
He said of the department’s 25 members, six are on leave, eight can respond only to motor vehicle fires, five can respond only to medical emergencies, and six members are cross-trained to respond to fire and medical emergencies. 15 of the 25 members “we rarely see on calls,” he said, “and the reasons are many and legitimate.”
Seven of the members “respond most of the time,” and “there are three of us who are doing everything."
So yes, Goddard said, they are getting burned out.
“I want everybody to know, [for calls in the] daytime during the week, this department would have already folded if it wasn’t for the Highway Department,” said Goddard, who noted four highway workers are Putney firefighters. During recent fires, he said, “they carried us."
“We appreciate — and the citizens should certainly appreciate — that the town allows the Highway Department [workers] to come to calls. That’s what’s saving our butts right now,” Goddard said.
“We hate to talk about it. It’s a pride thing,” Goddard said. “We don’t want to say, ‘We can’t,’ but we need to be realistic about things,” he added.
One attendee asked if state or federal money exists to help support the fire department.
“I haven’t found any,” Stoddard said.
Goddard’s research supported Stoddard’s statement. “There are very, very significant” requirements for receiving federal firefighting funding, “if you’re even eligible,” he said, and Putney isn’t. The federal funding agencies “don’t even recognize a community this size,” he said.
Regarding state funding, “that idea has been tossed around,” Goddard said. “It’s my wish to have a legitimate talk with our legislators."
Meanwhile, something must be done now, Stoddard said, and this proposal will “ease things up right now.” Beyond that, town officials and residents can approach legislators.
Public Safety Committee member Lawrence O’Neill asked Goddard if the proposal to pay firefighters when they are responding to calls will solve the issue.
“Honestly, we don’t know,” said Goddard, who added he “wants to think positively”
“We may find this doesn’t help at all, but we owe it to them to try right now,” Stoddard said.
She pointed out that when she spoke with officials from other fire departments that consider themselves “strong,” they said two things helped: paying firefighters and establishing a junior fire department league. But the latter takes personnel and money.
There is Putney precedent for paying firefighters, Goddard said. In the past, members earned an hourly wage while responding to calls. But, at a certain point, when they needed new firefighting equipment, the members decided to roll their hourly wages back into the department to cover the costs.
Selectboard Chair Scott Henry thanked attendees for showing up and said he hoped for a better turnout. But Selectboard members take this seriously, he said.
“This is on the front page of our work from now until we see some daylight,” Henry said, and encouraged townspeople to attend meetings on the topic, talk to their legislators, and keep pressure on the Selectboard to come up with a solution.
“I think we’re eventually heading toward a paid department,” said Eva Mondon, Putney resident and former firefighter.
She said she saw the department’s proposal as “a beginning,” and characterized it as “modest.” She urged town officials to “move ahead with it” and “let the people here in the Fire Department go home and rest in case there’s a call later on.”