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Alex Dunklee is Vernon’s new fire chief.

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Vernon on journey to rebuild broken fire department

Alex Dunklee appointed fire chief as advisory committee continues work to restructure, rebuild, and strengthen a depleted organization

VERNON—Selectboard Chair Chris Parker has seen Fire Chief Alex Dunklee’s car outside the fire station almost daily since Nov. 4, the date the board appointed the new chief.

“We lucked out,” Parker said.

A seven-member Fire Department Advisory Committee selected Dunklee to fill the position, which ended a difficult process for a small town managing its residents’ well-being.

On Sept. 22, Parker posted a letter online stating that the Selectboard voted to suspend the operations of the Vernon Volunteer Fire Department and EMS.

Members of the volunteer emergency services had voiced several concerns about safety, a lack of training, a bad working environment, and low morale.

“I have such a strong connection to this place and firm love for it that it was hard to accept it had gotten so far,” Parker said.

He added that when the issue came to the Selectboard’s attention, board members learned that some of the department’s vehicles needed to be inspected and that some safety equipment, such as air tanks, had not been checked properly.

This meant that firefighters could enter a burning building without the proper equipment, Parker continued.

“We had no idea these outstanding members of our community were essentially being put in harm’s way,” he said.

“No Selectboard wants to micromanage” a town department, he said, but the board needed to step in once the safety issues and lack of leadership were clear.

While the decision to close the department was deemed necessary and not made lightly, it also meant the town no longer had local fire and emergency services coverage.

The Selectboard established the Fire Department Advisory Committee, whose members included fire chiefs from neighboring towns and people with a background in firefighting.

The board and committee also organized emergency coverage through its contract with Rescue Inc. and mutual aid agreements with Guilford, Brattleboro, and Bernardston, Mass.

Parker said that Dunklee’s time as a member of the Advisory Committee has given him the opportunity to build working relationships with the neighboring fire chiefs, including those from Brattleboro and Guilford. Dunklee’s past firefighting experience will help rebuild the department from the inside out, Parker added.

Parker said he first got to know Dunklee when they both volunteered as teens for the Vernon Fire Department. The board chair remembers that as a youth, the new fire chief took firefighting seriously and always wanted to learn more.

Renewed passion for firefighting

For Dunklee, the post represents a return to his firefighting roots.

“I’ve received a lot of support from the board, the Committee, and people I’ve worked with in the past in the fire service,” he said, for which he is “deeply appreciative.”

Dunklee’s interest in firefighting ignited at age 17, when he joined the Vernon Volunteer Fire Department’s Explorers Program, which was launched in 1999 and affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America. His father also served in the department.

“I joined right around the time that Vernon started with the Explorers Program,” he said. “I’d been in the Boy Scouts quite a while before then, and it just was appealing to me.”

Dunklee later attended the Southern Maine Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in fire science and a certificate in welding. He works at Renaud Brothers Construction Inc. as a metal fabricator.

Approximately 10 years ago, Dunklee, who had achieved the rank of captain, stepped away from the department because of what he described as “life changes,” which included marriage and more responsibility at work.

Members of the Selectboard asked him to serve on the advisory committee tasked with rebuilding the department.

According to Dunklee, the board initially approached him for his take on why he initially left the department.

“Next thing I knew, I was volunteering on the committee,” he said with good humor.

Serving on the town’s Fire Department Advisory Committee, however, made Dunklee realize how much he missed serving in a fire department.

“It immediately brought me back, and it reminded me of the passion I had for it,” he said.

“I can see the importance of the services that the department provides and having an education [in the field] and having been involved before, I thought it was appropriate that I step forward, and at the least provide some insight and to just help things move forward,” Dunklee said.

The chief said he and the committee have spent a lot of time lately interviewing candidates to join the department. The committee is also working to fully integrate the fire and EMS departments into one unit, he said.

Most of the candidates are former Vernon Fire Department volunteers, Dunklee said. He wanted to stress that he and the committee have built a screening process that is “consistent and fair” going forward.

When asked how many volunteers he’d like the department to have, Dunklee said he wasn’t sure, noting that all departments in the area are struggling to find enough volunteers.

He said that volunteers can receive most of their training free, through the department and through the state Department of Fire Safety’s Vermont Fire Academy.

The difficulty lies in finding people who can commit the time, he said: The basic level — Firefighter I — can require more than 100 hours of class and hands-on training.

Dunklee also acknowledged that closing the department has been an uncomfortable measure for many who served in the department and for the community in general.

“We all want this to be behind us as soon as we can,” he said. “But we want to be careful and deliberate with our steps forward to ensure that this isn’t something that can happen again in the future, that the town of Vernon and the surrounding towns always have continuing coverage, and that we put a structure in place that allows for success.”

A committee at work

The advisory committee is in the process of creating a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Parker said so far, the department’s budget has increased an estimated $3,000 compared to last year.

The department budget approved at Annual Town Meeting in March is $100,760, level funded from the previous fiscal year.

While the Selectboard hasn’t given the committee a blank check, it also recognizes that the Fire Department has multiple pieces of safety equipment that need updating.

For example, the department will need to invest in new turnout gear, which includes outer clothing and helmets firefighters wear when dealing with a fire.

It’s the job of emergency personnel to run toward danger, Parker said, “but it’s our job to make sure the apparatus and gear they’re using and everything they need to do that job is up to inspection and up to date.”

Parker also expects that the department will conduct a few “goal-oriented fundraising” efforts to finance specific department needs.

He added that the advisory committee will try to have a budget ready for the board’s approval in December.

David Emery, committee chair and Vernon Emergency Management director, has almost 50 years of experience in the emergency services. This is the first time he’s ever helped rebuild a fire department.

Emery served 37 years with the Brattleboro Fire Department, a decade with the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, and several years in emergency management.

Dunklee’s appointment fulfills one of the advisory committee’s top goals. A subcommittee has tirelessly worked to interview firefighters and EMS candidates, said Emery, who hopes that soon the committee will be able to announce the nomination of an assistant fire chief.

Any “fire department USA” will say that volunteers “are worth their weight in gold,” Emery said. The training requirements for volunteers are “unbelievably huge” — and the COVID-19 pandemic has made finding volunteers even more difficult, he added.

Emery remembers how in the 1970s, most volunteer fire departments had waiting lists of potential members. “The waiting list is a thing of the past,” he said.

He said that a few of the Vernon department’s new firefighters have started their training with a class in Wilmington. Emery said that one or two nights a week, these volunteers leave work and spend three to four more hours in class. In between class and their day jobs, these volunteers are putting even more time in studying, he said.

“It’s a ton of dedication,” he added.

By Jan. 1, 2021, the committee hopes to have a “cadre of people” ready to start training, he said.

The town’s EMS service, under the leadership of Rescue Inc.’s Deputy Chief Zach Rounds, has renewed operations and responded to its first call in early October, Emery said.

The committee is still evaluating the Fire Department’s gear and infrastructure, Emery added.

‘No one’s fault’

Emery stressed that closing the department was no one’s fault, not even the former chief, Todd Capen.

“Todd Capen is not a master, he did a good job,” Emery said.

Capen did the best he could and deserved an “attaboy” for his work, said Emery, who hopes Capen will return to the department someday.

But as fire chief, Capen was the one to take responsibility, as all chiefs must, he added.

Emery hoped the community understands that the advisory committee cannot build a new department if it also dwells on the past.

With a clean slate, “there will be no this-is-how-it’s-always-done,” Emery said. “I truly feel totally positive that [the Vernon Fire Department] will come back stronger than ever.”

Emery said Dunklee will face many challenges rebuilding the department but believes the new chief is up to it.

“I’m pretty positive he will have a great deal of support from this town,” Emery said.

Along with Emery and Dunklee, Committee members include Guilford Fire Chief Jared Bristol, Chris LaFlam, Marylynn Scherlin, Jason Veaudry, and Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi.

Help from their neighbors

Bucossi’s involvement with the Vernon Fire Department started on Sept. 20, before the Selectboard announced its closure.

The board had reached out to the Brattleboro chief to make sure the town would still have emergency coverage if they were to vote to close the firehouse, Bucossi said.

From his perspective as a fire chief, Bucossi said he supported the board’s decision as the only way for the town to address the safety issues properly.

He said that by working through the regional mutual aid agreements, the fire chiefs of Brattleboro, Guilford, and Bernardston, Mass. divided Vernon into three districts. The mutual aid dispatchers in Keene, N.H., where the local 911 calls are routed, would then contact the appropriate cover town depending on the region of Vernon from which the call for help originated.

“Mutual aid” refers to agreements that emergency service organizations make with one another to provide support during emergencies. These agreements can cross town, county, or state lines.

As of last week, Bucossi said that the Brattleboro Fire Department had responded to six fire calls and two medical calls in Vernon. At no time was Brattleboro without coverage or its resources strained, he added.

In fact, the chief had “expected lumps and bumps” in the early days of Brattleboro, Guilford, and Bernardston providing coverage, “but it was totally seamless,” he said.

Because the three towns are acting under their mutual aid agreement, Bucossi said Vernon will not reimburse the other towns for coverage.

Bucossi said he and Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell agreed that Vernon residents are part of the wider Brattleboro community, as many work and shop in town. Bucossi added that mutual aid benefits everyone because neighboring emergency services show up when Brattleboro needs help.

Vernon’s closure has left gaps in the mutual aid system, he said, requiring other communities to pull more weight in the meantime.

Despite the temporary coverage’s success, Bucossi believes Vernon’s residents will feel better once their local department returns to full functionality.

The committee is working methodically through its to-do list, Bucossi said, noting that members want to do their best and leave Vernon’s department stronger. Having a new chief at the department’s core will make the work easier, he noted.

Opportunity to ‘change for the better’

“I think Vernon is lucky to have Alex,” Bucossi said. “His heart is really into it and he know what he’s getting into.”

Dunklee appreciates the support he has received from the committee and from other local fire chiefs. He is also aware that he has taken the helm during a difficult time but remains positive.

He hopes the department can grow while also holding on to deep values of taking pride in caring for the community and a shared camaraderie.

“It’s not an opportunity that anybody wants to be in,” he said. “It’s not something that happens very often.”

“One thing that I’ve found in the fire service through the years is that there’s a pretty deeply rooted tradition in how things are done, and sometimes it’s really hard to change,” he added. “I think this gives us a really good opportunity to change for the better, while holding on some of those deeply rooted values.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #588 (Wednesday, November 18, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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