Local fire departments wrestle with volunteer firefighter shortage

  • Deputy Fire Chief Eric Phillips is pulled out of the water during the Antrim Fire Department’s ice rescue training session on Sunday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Gearing up for a dip in Gregg Lake during the Antrim Fire Department’s ice rescue training session on Sunday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Antrim Fire Department held an ice rescue training session on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/22/2021 5:11:35 PM

Local fire departments play a critical role in the safety and wellbeing of a community, but keeping them staffed with trained firefighters willing to devote themselves to volunteer labor is a task nearly as daunting as fighting the actual fires. At the local and national level, fire departments are experiencing a dearth of trained volunteers. 

Rosters

“I think we’re all in the same situation,” said Antrim Fire Chief Marshall Gale. “We just don’t get the people we used to.”

Gale started in the fire service in 1976 and said 30 years ago it was not all that uncommon for there to be a wait list at many departments. That is far from the case in Antrim today.

“Now, it’s hard to even have enough staff to fully man our apparatus,” Gale said.

It’s not like there is nobody joining, Gale said, but it’s more like a few people here and there. They use social media to help with recruitment because the goal is to get the message out as much as they can.

“And we do our best as far as recruitment and retention,” he said. Gale said the department roster, which includes 27 town residents, is definitely smaller than what it used to be.

“Volunteering isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “And the availability of those 27 is varied across the roster.”

Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker said the lack of new membership is a huge problem and one that departments around the state and the country deal with daily.

“It’s become difficult for people to come out and serve their community,” Walker said. “It’s just the reality of the time we’re living in.”

Currently, Peterborough Fire has 18 members, who are considered paid on call meaning they get a minimum of one hour of pay for responding.

“If we could get 20 to 24 people, that would be phenomenal,” Walker said.

Rindge Fire Chief Rick Donovan said the number on the roster depends on whether Franklin Pierce University is in session. Year-round membership is at about 25 people, and Donovan said they get anywhere from 10 to 12 more through FPU.

“Back in the day, there were waiting lists in the ’80s and ’90s to come on,” Donovan said. But Donovan, who became chief in February 2002, said the numbers have gone way down since those halcyon days.

“Now, for every half-dozen that come through the door, one or two stay. We could use more people. We’re running pretty light,” he said. “But everybody’s in the same situation. We can only draw from the pool from the town you’re in.”

He points to lack of affordable housing for younger people to move to the area and the fact people have more time restraints.

Francestown Chief Larry Kullgren said the department is always looking for additional members, and due to the pandemic, they weren’t able to do the typical kind of community outreach last year like at the Francestown Labor Day celebration.

“This environment doesn’t really help with recruitment,” Kullgren said.

Kullgren said there are a good 15 to 20 active members on the department, but that pales in comparison to what it looked like when he started 30 years ago.

“Through the ’90s, we had almost 35 to 40 people on the roster,” Kullgren said. “Over the last 20 to 30 years, the trend has shown the number of people able to volunteer has declined.”

Age demographics

Gale said when they do get new members, “it seems like when I’m picking up people these days, it’s middle-aged folks.”

He’s on the lookout out for potential younger members, but for some reason it’s just harder to bring them in.

Kullgren said many of the department members are going on 15, 20 years, which means that many of the volunteers are middle aged or older.

“One of the bigger issues is there’s not an influx of young men and women joining,” Kullgren said.

Walker, who began in the fire service when he was in college and is now in his 50s, said there are five members under the age of 30 and three others between 30 and 50.

“So the majority are over the age of 50,” Walker said. “And we’re probably bringing in more people closer to my age than people in their 20s.” But in actuality , departments want younger members because as Walker put it, “it’s a younger persons job.”

Donovan said the department’s age range is skewed by the Franklin Pierce students, because in reality it is more older residents that volunteer.

“It’s definitely a young person’s game. It is physical work fighting fires,” Donovan said.

Coverage concerns

Kullgren said coverage during the day is where most of his concerns lie.

“All these people have day jobs and other commitments so during the day, it’s our most difficult time for staffing,” he said. “During the day there may only be three or four able to answer a call.”

Since it is volunteer, Kullgren said they do not put a mandate on the number of calls members need to respond to.

“They give us whatever extra time they can,” he said.

Donovan said Rindge Fire has four duty groups, that are anywhere from four to six members, that are on one night a week, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and one weekend a month to respond to calls. He’d like them to be a little bigger, more like eight, but he takes what he can get.

He said they’ve used the method for about 10 years and its for one simple reason: “We needed to do something to prevent our guys from getting burned out,” Donovan said. “We ran into that issue 15 years ago.”

But like many other departments, daytime coverage is a concern. Donovan is full-time and will respond to every call and from there it is always a wonder of how many people will show up.

“And time is of the essence,” Donovan said. That’s why some calls go out as third or fourth alarms, simply because more man power is needed.

Both Donovan and Walker said 20 to 30 years ago, a lot more people worked in the town they lived in and would be provided the opportunity to leave their job for a call.

“Employers could afford to loose a couple people for a couple of hours,” Walker said. For the most part, that is no longer the case.

“We do have some businesses who will let you leave,” Donovan said. “But it needs to be a major event.”

Like others, Walker said during the day in the hardest to predict in terms of how many people will be available. Typically it’s about three to four during the day and four to eight at night, depending on the nature of the call.

“You’re not going to really get more than five or six,” Walker said. Of course, there are exceptions to that when it is an actual fire.

Gale said Antrim Fire has its core group that no matter the call, they always show up.

“But today we’re not even seeing that like we used to,” he said.

These days, he will have six to eight members that will always respond. Gale said department members are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are paid an hourly rate when they respond.

Nighttime calls seem to get a little more response; it’s the daytime that tends to be a little bit more of an unknown.“The daytime can be really difficult,” Gale said.

Training

The state of New Hampshire has varying requirements whether its for volunteer, part-time/on-call, or full-time firefighters. But most departments have their own set of standards they hold their people to.

Walker said initially it’s about 100 to 150 hours of training, as well as weekly sessions every Monday, which he understands is a big commitment and may deter some people.

“Life does get in the way,” he said. “So there’s a whole slew of factors that make it challenging.”

Donovan said the amount of training is a big commitment, but it is necessary to make sure everyone that responds to a call is prepared.

“We want to make sure they have the proper training and know what they need to do,” he said. “When there’s a fire, we want everybody to come out of that building.”

Gale said it’s a big commitment to be on a department these days. He said in Antrim, they have monthly in-house training sessions to go along with the recommended amount of hours laid out by the state.

Kullgren said there is monthly training sessions and then every couple of months will do a bigger more involved training that often is held with another local department.

While the amount of training and classwork can be a lot for some, Kullgren said he’s always open to a conversation with someone who might be interested in joining but has some reservations.

“There’s a place and a purpose for everyone in the fire service. We’ll find a spot for them,” he said. “You don’t have to run into a burning building.”

Mutual aid

Walker said the mutual aid in the area is so important because if a big call comes in and he only has a few members available, he needs help from other towns – and vice versa.

“We heavily rely on mutual aid to produce the level of service people expect from us,” Walker said.

Sometimes he’s only getting a handful of people from a couple other departments, but that makes a huge difference.

“You really don’t know,” Walker said. “You’re constantly looking at how many people are coming. It is something that weighs very heavily.” He said they use the cell phone app Spotted Dog, which allows members to chime in if they are responding and that gives him an idea of what to expect when he arrives on scene.

The idea of regionalization is something that could and should be explored, Walker said. Donovan said to an extent the area is regionalized, but the problem is getting everyone on board in a more official capacity. It also won’t be a complete fix, he said, due to the wide-spread rural area.

“I still think you’re going to need satellite stations,” Donovan said.

“We already do it to an extent,” Walker said, considering the amount of response received from other departments and the coverage they provide for other towns that have a call to respond to.

Gale said they also use Spotted Dog and it allows for him to best prepare.

“That way I’m already planning what I have for people,” he said. And it also aids in knowing what he might need for reinforcement.

The role of fire chief is to ensure that no matter the call, there is enough of a response to handle whatever comes across the airwaves. And with more people signing up, each department will have a better chance of keeping everyone safe.




Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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