Published July 27. 2014 4:00AM
The diminishing number of volunteers in the fire service over the past few decades has local departments continually looking for creative ways not only to attract, but to retain their members.
The Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association, in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, is using a $1.2 million federal grant this year to tackle the problem. Over the coming weeks, the groups plan to develop applications and distribute funds to 15 departments with the greatest need for volunteers.
Fire Chief Association President Robert Shea, chief of the Portland Fire Department, said along with marketing campaigns, mentoring programs and leadership training, a key factor in the retention of firefighters is support for the municipalities they serve.
The municipalities can provide the key incentives, he said, in the form of tax abatements, pensions or pay-per-call stipends. Leadership is also another major factor, he said.
The more robust the volunteer service, he said, the lower the cost to the towns.
"Recruitment is one thing, but to keep a volunteer today is different because of time commitments in their everyday life. That trickles back to cities and towns," he said. "What are they going to do to keep them?"
Similar to national numbers, Connecticut's fire service is dominated by volunteers, according to state Fire Administrator Jeffrey Morrissette, a volunteer in his hometown of Wethersfield. Nationally, 69 percent of the nation's 1.13 million firefighters were volunteers in 2012, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
New London County has about 50 departments and just three municipalities covered at least in part by a paid department: Norwich, Groton and New London. Other towns have volunteer departments supplemented by paid firefighters. Other paid departments are at the two Indian reservations, the U.S. Naval Submarine Base and on the grounds of private companies such as Electric Boat and Pfizer.
The reasons for the decreasing supply of volunteers vary, but among them is the fact that nationwide, fewer residents work in the towns where they live, making responses to daytime calls difficult. Training requirements also have become more stringent, leading to months of training before a volunteer can participate in fighting a fire.
"Each town has their own unique challenges, some are geographical," Morrissette said. "For those rural communities … a town of 3,000 people just doesn't have the populace to draw from."
In towns where a volunteer department is also the emergency medical service provider, volunteers are stressed because the vast majority of calls are EMS related, he said.
As to a solution to the problem, Morrissette said, "I don't think there is any silver bullet per se."
Towns have responded in a number of ways. Mutual aid agreements have evolved to include automatic responses from neighboring towns to assure proper manpower. It's common to see East Lyme's Niantic and Flanders departments respond to the same call regardless of the district.
Many towns have hired paid staff to cover the times when volunteers are least available. Montville, Waterford and East Lyme are among towns staffing multiple fire departments and fire houses with paid staff.
Additionally, Waterford has hired a fire administrator to help cope with the increasingly taxing job of managing things like budgets and training schedules.
Some departments, like Old Mystic, which is funded in part through a fire district tax, offer multiple incentives. Old Mystic Fire Chief Kenneth Richards Jr. said the department employs stipends and pay-per-call incentives that are based on qualifications.
"You really have to make it attractive to volunteers with their busy lifestyles," Richards said. "You also have to have well-thought-out training. The little bit of time they have, you have to make it worthwhile. The busier the department, the lesser the problem."
Richards will speak at a conference in Dallas next month on the "do's and don't's" of attracting volunteers. He was president of the fire chiefs association during the first round of federal grants aimed at attracting new recruits.
With a core of 35 volunteers and five full-time staff, Richards said, and a schedule of three to five volunteers staying at the station on rotating shifts, someone is always ready to respond. Volunteers are paid $15 plus a per-call stipend.
He said it helps to keep volunteers active with training opportunities, such as sessions with the department's successful dive team or technical rescue classes.
In Waterford, Cohanzie Fire Chief Todd Branch heads one of five volunteer departments. He said finding and keeping volunteers is a constant struggle. Todd is helping to organize a recruitment campaign involving the use of a new website, banners and a presence at the Crystal Mall.
He said the economy also has taken a toll.
"Because of that, the way we respond generally to every call is two departments simply to give a better response, but also for manpower," he said.
His said he has 10 to 12 core active volunteers, and the town has hired paid daytime staff to man each of the departments. The town offers a tax abatement of up to $1,000 based on the number of calls to which each volunteer responds. The tax abatement is good for residents and older members with property but Todd said it does little to attract younger volunteers or those from outside the district. The department responded to 1,300 calls last year.
In Norwich, home to five volunteer departments and one paid, Chief Frank Blanchard attributed his Yantic Volunteer Fire Company's high number of active volunteers - 58 - to regular community involvement.
"Our facility is very social," Blanchard said. "There are a lot of events that attract membership. Our primary focus is lives and property but when we get down time, we're always active in the community, In Yantic, you're a member of the fire department and a member of the community."
Norwich offers each of its volunteer departments tax abatement and pension programs based on their number of calls and years of service.
Blanchard said there is still a strong tradition of family members continuing to volunteer as firefighters.
"There is a history of fathers, sons, grandsons serving. I can go through my roster and show lineage of four or five generations that participate."
Blanchard said it also helps to be able to fund firefighter training, something that can lead a volunteer to a career in the fire service.
Morrissette said community service is still a part of what attracts people to a volunteer department and said, for some, "it's about giving back."