Attracting Volunteer Firefighters Becomes a Challenge for Towns
By MAX HART
Around the Vineyard, the number of volunteer firefighters serving their communities is falling.
Ten years ago, the Tisbury fire department was running with a full complement of 51 volunteer firefighters. Today the number has dropped to 41.
Three years ago, the Chilmark fire department boasted a full staff of 38 volunteers. Today the number of firefighters responding to a call is almost half of that.
And in Aquinnah, the second smallest town in the commonwealth where the loss of one volunteer firefighter from the squad can have a disastrous impact, the department is running at two-thirds full strength and in danger of dropping into single digits.
"I have 41 guys and that's the lowest it has been in 10 years, and it keeps dropping," Tisbury fire chief John Schilling said. "In the past there has been a pretty steady balance between attrition through retirement and new recruitment. But now, it is just not the case. Guys are going and no one is coming in."
"I have about 20 guys show up for a fire, if I'm lucky," said Chilmark fire chief David Norton. "That's down from 38 I had only a couple of years ago."
"There is a lot more time involved in being a volunteer firefighter now than ever," said Aquinnah fire chief Walter Delaney, who has a staff of just 10 volunteers. "For us especially, being in such a small town, it is really hard to find a young guy cut out to be a firefighter that has the time to commit to it. I mean, you have to put in a lot of time."
The broad network of EMTs on the Island is experiencing a similar problem.
Island fire chiefs say the trend can be traced to several factors, including more rules, regulations and paperwork, more training requirements for firefighters, and hence more time commitment. The increased economic burden of living on the Vineyard is also a factor.
"I'm worried, no question," Chief Schilling said. "We are not getting the young families moving into Vineyard Haven that are potential volunteers, not like it used to be. Look at what it costs to buy a house here. And those that do move here usually have to work two jobs to afford it and don't have the time to commit."
Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury are not experiencing the problem yet, but fire chiefs in those towns are worried about the future.
"We have been lucky, but I think down the road it's going to be tough," said West Tisbury fire chief Manuel Estrella. "We're in pretty good shape now, but the younger guys we get are not as frequent. Housing, the price of land in town - there are plenty of factors that make it tough for younger guys," he added.
"We've been very fortunate," said Edgartown fire chief Antone Bettencourt, who, with 55 volunteers, oversees the Island's largest fire department. "But you always worry."
For Chief Schilling in Vineyard Haven, the struggle is real.
"We've got a lot of guys who have been a volunteer fireman in this town for over 25 years, but those aren't the ones we're worried about," he said. "The younger guys who have been here less than five years are the ones leaving, and they're the ones we are really investing all our training in."
His roster includes many veteran firefighters. Fourteen of the 41 firefighters in Tisbury - a third of the department - have over 20 years experience. In the last two years, Chief Schilling said he has lost six newer firemen who moved off the Island.
"There are not a lot of affordable houses available out there for these guys," he said.
Expanding federal and state mandates and training regulations have hit every fire department. Chief Schilling estimated that a volunteer who attends every required drill, meeting and training course can donate upwards of 400 hours a year.
What was once a relatively simple exercise has evolved into an all-consuming activity.
"It used to be an easier commitment for people to make," he said. "We used to joke that you just put the wet stuff on the red stuff [water on the fire]. It's not that simple anymore."
A ropes rescue and safety course required of all firefighters, for example, was once a three-hour training course but has now ballooned into a three-day event.
"These guys had to give up their Friday to take this, which they are required to take to comply with the mandate," Chief Schilling said. "You are asking them to give up a day of work for uncompensated training, and a lot of guys just can't afford that."
The Firefighters 1 class, the beginning level course for prospective firemen, is 100 hours long.
"You're really asking them to make a judgment call," Chief Schilling said. "Take a course or work and get paid. That's a hard thing to get people to do."
Despite being classified as a volunteer position, each of the Island's six fire departments pays out a small, yearly stipend to its members. Each town pays their firemen between $725 to $1,000 per year based on factors such as attendance, level of training and rank. Some qualify the stipend as fuel reimbursement.
Chief Schilling is now exploring new ways to retain staff by providing an additional small stipend to volunteers that spend time in non-fire related duties during work hours. At a selectmen's meeting last month, he asked board members to allow him to use funds from his budget to pay for the additional stipends.
"It's really just a gesture of good will," he said. "We're talking about giving these guys an extra $84 for losing a day of work, but I think it is important to show that we are trying to do something to keep these guys interested," he said, adding:
"We have to do something."