The Shelburne volunteer fire department hosted an open house on Saturday for Operation Mayday, the first statewide initiative aimed at bringing new firefighters into the Vermont fire service.
Although the department has no full-time employees, the town has successfully relied on its professional volunteers for more than a century, but interest in the volunteer service has slowly decreased with the department seeing a smaller influx of new recruitments in recent years.
Chief Andrew Dickerson, who has been with the department about 14 years, said that although the department isn’t in dire need of volunteers like some local departments, what they are experiencing is steady turnover rates, leaving the department with significant skill gaps between members.
“We have folks that have a lot of experience and are good, competent leaders, and we have a lot of folks that are still very green and new to the job and have a lot to learn,” Dickerson said. “They’re great, they’re enthusiastic, they’re go-getters, and they love what they’re doing, but it just takes so long to get them that exposure training and the experience. If you’re not constantly bringing people in, you can get into a situation where you have a big skills gap, that’s the situation we’re in right now.”
The department, which averages 300 calls annually, currently has 32 volunteers — including four college students — that average anywhere from four hours to 20 hours a week of service time. Dickerson explained that 14 years ago, the department easily saw 45 volunteers at a given time.
“Last year we tracked 6,400 hours of time put in. On top of that, there’s also when folks do driver training, we don’t track that time. If you’re here doing maintenance or working with a mentor, we don’t track that time either, because we just don’t have the capability to track every hour. So I would guess that it’s probably closer to about 8,000 hours that were actually put in by all these folks.”
The event mostly saw an overflow of kids from the Little League game happening in the field next to the station, but didn’t garner as much interest from potential volunteers. The team handed out roughly four applications during the entire three-hour event — a situation Dickerson says is mostly due to the ever-changing lifestyles of the world we live in.
“Forty years ago, a lot of people worked in the town that they lived in. Today, a lot of people commute an hour or two to get to work,” Dickerson said. “So if you’re commuting for two to four hours a day, do you then have time to put in an eight-hour work day, commute and then also volunteer to do this? There’s also a lot more activities that families do these days.”
Once accepted by the department’s membership committee, the first stop for a new recruit is a basics course which is, on average, a month and a half of training.
“It’s a combination of classroom and practical,” member Ted Fisher said. “We have a textbook, we do training days, you learn about hose line handling, building construction, buyer behavior, ropes and knots, tools, ladders, all the very basic stuff.”
New firefighters join the team on a probationary period that often lasts up to six months while working closely with a mentor and other longer-reining volunteers.
“Ted (Fisher) was one of my probationary firefighters,” firefighter Garrett Levin said. “We will work together, we’ll go over the checklist. A lot of stuff can be done one on one ... and then, of course, there are certain training and education components that are better served as a group.”
Dickerson explained that Shelburne is one of the few local departments that don’t have any paid full-time staff, allowing for a stronger volunteer base, for which most neighboring departments are pining.
“I would like to see, where all my volunteers, the only thing they have to do is show up and train and go on incidents,” Dickerson said. “They don’t have to worry about planning, recruitment drives, rewriting bylaws and policies or doing maintenance on the trucks.”
During this year’s budget season, the department requested funds to pay a full-time fire chief, which was ultimately nixed by the selectboard due to other budget constraints.
“We’re running a business of 32 ‘employees,’ that operates off of a half-million-dollar budget. So, there’s a lot to keep track of.”
For now, department leadership wants to continue on a volunteer basis mostly because other departments see their volunteer levels drop drastically once paid staff comes on board, not to mention the cost to the town.
“If we were three or four people to a shift, you’d be looking at a $2.6 million budget. Right now, we still feel like we’re doing this town justice (on a volunteer basis),” he said. “It’s really challenging what we do. But we’re doing well enough with it and we feel like we owe it to this community to stretch it out as long as we can.”
The team is not limited to putting out fires. The department responds to carbon monoxide alarms, motor vehicle accidents, hazardous material incidents, emergencies on the lake with five active apparatus designed for a broad range of needs, along with two boats.
“This is definitely my family,” said Levin. “These are my closest friends outside of my friends that live in other states. Without a doubt.”
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