Vt. fire departments struggle to keep volunteer firefighters - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. fire departments struggle to keep volunteer firefighters

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When fire strikes, getting help quickly is crucial.

"I finally decided to do it four years ago and I wish I had did it when I was younger. There is no more thrill of helping your community out," said James Goodyear, a Williston volunteer firefighter.

Goodyear says it is in his blood to be a firefighter. Goodyear says he grew up watching many of his family members serve, so he, too, decided to become a firefighter. He says it can be hard putting in the hours with a full-time job. Although it means less sleep for Goodyear, it also could mean fewer volunteers across the state.

"Williston has grown and volunteerism has shrunk," said Chief Ken Morton of the Williston Fire Department.

Morton has been chief of the Williston Fire Department for more than 20 years. He says as the town continues to grow, they are having to find ways to fight fires with fewer volunteers. As a result, they have had to hire full-time employees and bring in people from outside the community. Morton says having nonlocal volunteers, means they aren't tied to the community and turnover rates have dramatically increased.

"The sad part is, and the frustrating part is, that we invest many, many hours of in-house training to get folks oriented to both our way, the way of the rules and regulations, and just to be able to respond appropriately. Then they leave," said Morton.

Morton says over the years, he thinks the culture has changed and fewer employers allow people to leave to fight a fire. And in Williston, the number of calls has skyrocketed in recent years. Decades ago, Morton says the department would get about a call a week. Now, he estimates crews go to about 40 fires every week.

Ben O'Brien, the president of Professional Firefighters of Vermont, says the struggle to recruit enough volunteers is a statewide problem.

"It's a vital service that you really need. It's difficult to leave an area uncovered or an area not covered well enough," said O'Brien.

O'Brien says as departments have fewer volunteers, often they have to call upon mutual aid from other towns. In reality, that can often mean slower response time. The head of the union says this is an issue that isn't usually addressed until disaster strikes.

"But after you have a major fire and you didn't have enough help, I think that sparks the discussion of where do we go from here," said O'Brien.

O'Brien says he hopes it never gets to that. He says it is up to the communities, local municipalities, and fire departments to see if the stations can afford and should try to hire full-time positions.

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