Rockingham’s fire equipment is currently housed at the town’s highway department.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Rockingham’s fire equipment is currently housed at the town’s highway department.

Rockingham considers merging three fire departments

A comprehensive study presents three options and reveals overwhelming local support for consolidation among firefighters and residents alike

ROCKINGHAM-The study by a Wyoming EMS consulting firm has recommended that three fire departments - Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, and Rockingham - be consolidated into one with one town-wide fire district.

AP Triton presented the results of a feasibility study of the three local fire departments at a special joint board meeting of the Selectboard and the village trustees of Bellows Falls and Saxtons River.

The Bellows Falls Fire Department employs a fire chief and on-call firefighters, while both village fire departments are all-volunteer.

The Rockingham Volunteer Fire Department is a nonprofit organization with no official connection to the town of Rockingham.

Each department has its own fire station, and the need to replace the station in Saxtons River has long been under discussion.

Three paths forward

John Stouffer, project manager for AP Triton, presented the group's findings at the meeting via Zoom.

The 194-page final report included the results of confidential online surveys of fire department staff and elected town officials as well as personal interviews and detailed descriptions of the town's various firefighting facilities.

Stouffer asserted at the beginning of the presentation that the study was unbiased, undertaken without preconceived notions, and based on science, national standards, local standards, and best practices.

He said AP Triton understood that some of the conclusions would be controversial, and "some people are not going to like our recommendations."

Consolidation of the three fire departments has been a controversial topic of discussion in recent years and has not so far led to any change.

Stouffer outlined three scenarios explored by the study: (A) leave things as they are, (B) develop "interlocal agreements" among the fire departments, or (C) consolidate to establish one fire district.

Existing facilities present varying challenges

The three departments have a combined total of 68 staff members - 24 in Bellows Falls, 25 in Rockingham and 19 in Saxtons River.

Together, they cover 42 square miles - 20.5 square miles each for Rockingham and Saxtons River, and 1.2 square miles for Bellows Falls. The total population of the area is 4,832, nearly 60% of whom live in Bellows Falls.

Of the 38 respondents to the 17-question confidential survey, 35% were firefighters and 25% were elected officials.

Stouffer said that "the big question" on the survey asked whether the respondent would "support a potential consolidation of two or more of the three fire departments."

A large majority - 84% of those surveyed - said they would, depending on the details. Only 10% said they would not support any consolidation or that they felt consolidation is unnecessary.

If only two departments were to be consolidated, the majority of those surveyed said they would choose Saxtons River and Rockingham.

The feasibility study also looked at the condition of the three fire stations. The one in Bellows Falls was found to be in the best condition, but would "still need work to improve safety issues."

The Saxtons River Fire Station - the oldest of the three - is in a flood plain and was rated as being in poor condition, with a second floor "in danger of collapse."

The study stated clearly that an "alternative location should be found immediately."

Support for consolidation is strong

The average number of calls per year that the fire stations collectively received was found to be roughly 650, with the majority coming from Bellows Falls and Rockingham.

Emergency medical events represented the vast majority of those calls, accounting for 66% of the service demand on the departments. Fires accounted for only 8%, with an equal percentage of false alarms.

The study said that strategy B - developing interlocal agreements among the existing fire departments - would be most effective under a single fire chief, with a combined team to handle all clerical and similar work for the departments.

The study said that this would be the next step toward consolidation. The departments would remain independent entities for legal and tax purpose but would share an organizational structure and chain of command.

Stouffer said that taking this route for a couple of years might be the best way to test whether full consolidation would work.

With regard to full consolidation and the establishment of a fire district, Stouffer said the most important first step would be to determine the level of interest and support among citizens.

Citing survey respondents' 84% support for this strategy, Stouffer added, "Nearly all the people we spoke to supported consolidation."

He also made clear that consolidation would not mean getting rid of volunteer firefighters.

"Volunteers are worth their weight in gold," Stouffer said. "You don't have the funding for an all-career fire department, and you don't need to."

Changes would take time

If a new fire district is eventually established, the study encouraged all the current volunteer firefighters to join the new district.

But before anything can happen, several steps need to be taken, including filing petitions with various boards, holding public meetings, winning Selectboard approval, and developing fire district bylaws, rules, and regulations.

All of that will take some time.

Rockingham Town Manager Scott Pickup said the next step for the study is for the "Fire Equipment Committee to dig into the findings and recommendations and report back to the tri-board meeting on June 25."

The full Triton study can be found at

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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