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Waterford - For about six months now, a sign has hung on a pole by Jordan Fire Company soliciting volunteers. The sign is not the first of its kind the station has posted, and it reflects an issue that has persisted for the five fire companies of Waterford Fire Services for years.
As the time required for firefighter training has increased, the amount of time part-time and volunteer firefighters commit has decreased.
"The fire service as a whole requires a lot more of the volunteers of today," said Timothy Condon, chief of Waterford Fire Engine Company No. 1, better known as Jordan Fire Company. "Now people live with two incomes. People have to work constantly just to be able to afford to live right now."
To counteract these long-term trends, Waterford Fire Services is exploring a cost-per-call system to incentivize its unpaid volunteers to respond to more calls and pursue higher-level certification.
Fire Services Director Bruce Miller said the issue is not lack of interest in volunteering.
"The numbers are still there," he said.
The issue is that the department has had trouble filling some part-time shifts even with its 55 part-time staff, forcing it to rely on paying its seven full-time firefighters overtime to keep them on call at night.
The department requested $30,000 for overtime in its proposed budget for 2014-15, which the Board of Finance trimmed down to $25,000 during a budget hearing last week. For fiscal years 2010 through 2013, the department usually spent around $20,000 on overtime, about twice what it budgeted for the line item. Superstorm Sandy and bad winter storms drove the expenditure up to about $73,000 in 2012-13.
Part-time firefighters start as unpaid volunteers with the department, then rise to paid positions as they fulfill necessary training, which the department covers and usually provides in-house. In addition to basic firefighter certification, as of 2001, they must complete additional training such as hazardous materials and safety procedure training. Achieving the combination of necessary certifications takes about 400 hours of study and practice, according to Miller.
In order to incentivize its 175 unpaid volunteers to respond to more calls and hopefully seek higher levels of certification, the department is considering instating a cost-per-call system in which volunteers would receive payment each time they respond to a call.
Payment would likely be partly based on the level of certification of a volunteer. If more volunteers met greater certification requirements, more would qualify to work as part-time staff.
Waterford Fire Services' struggles to fill shifts are not unique. Nationwide, stations are facing decreasing numbers of volunteers, even as the number of calls rises.
The National Volunteer Firefighter Council reports that the number of volunteers nationwide in 2012 was 783,000, down from close to 900,000 in 1984. The number of calls nationwide meanwhile jumped from 11.9 million in 1986 to 31.9 million in 2011.
Niantic Fire Chief John McDonald said his hybrid volunteer and paid staff department has seen a rise in medical calls as the East Lyme population ages. Meanwhile, the number of volunteers has decreased.
He said the time commitment necessary to contribute as a volunteer is a factor.
"It takes a lot of time to get a person qualified," he said.
Not having enough volunteers can increase response time in some cases. Miller said that ideal response time is 5 minutes or less, but Waterford stations on a few occasions have taken more than 10 minutes to get to a scene.
"That's when the station wasn't staffed," he said, but added that the delay has only happened in the case of minor calls.
While Waterford Fire Services explores options, the department is working with its resources to streamline operations. The department recently introduced a new online scheduling system, allowing paid staff to sign up for shifts from home. Before, the firefighters had to sign up on paper at their stations.
"Some of the part-time issue before might be that guys didn't know there were any open shifts," said Miller.
Creating a cost-per-call system in Waterford would require additional appropriations that the Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting would have to approve. Miller said he was unsure what the ultimate cost would be, but that it would be an improvement over the department's current means of incentivizing volunteering.
The department currently offers volunteers a rebate on property taxes based on time commitment. Rebates can range between $300 and $1,000 for volunteers who own property such as homes or cars.
"It's a program, it's something, but it's limited in the number of volunteers it actually helps," Miller said.