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Help Wanted: Volunteer firefighters and EMS workers

Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 5:50 PM EST
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SOUTH HERO, Vt. (WCAX) - Volunteer firefighters and other EMS workers have been on a sharp decline for years now, but how is that impacting departments’ response times and ability to effectively put out fires? As part of our ongoing series on high-demand jobs, our Kayla Martin found out what’s being done to attract EMS workers through the door and on scene.

Critical care transport nurse Orla Walsh and Hanna Grasso, a junior at Montpelier High School are in the middle of a medical emergency simulation.

“Your bleeding has stopped, there’s no other visible bleeding,” Walsh said.

“Put him on the backboard, so we’d have someone stabilizing the head and neck,” Grasso suggested.

Grasso is enrolled in the Emergency Services program at Central Vermont Career Center in Barre, a special program to get youth interested in the field of EMS field.

“it’s so exciting just getting the next generation involved. It’s just opening their eyes to the resources out here,” said Walsh, who works with the DHART life flight team to transport patients with life-threatening injuries. “I didn’t know this existed when I was a young nurse or young EMT,” she said.

Now, she wants to make sure that others do. It’s a critical effort to grow EMS staff for the future, something they’re already having a hard time with. “Our resources and our staff, staffing -- we’ve had some shortages, especially in the hospital,” Walsh said. “We’re really feeling it.”

She hopes these classes will act as feeder programs for careers in the EMS field

Doug Brent, the chief of fire and medical services for the city of Barre, says there’s more that needs to be done to get young people interested in these programs. “I’d be surprised to know how many are even still running on a statewide basis. There were several that were running around the state, but the numbers have just not been there,” he said.

Without young people in the pipeline, EMS workers worry about getting to patients and bringing them where they need to go in a timely manner. “Somebody always inevitably shows up. The question is how long are you waiting for that service to be rendered,” said South Hero Assistant Fire Chief Leo Wermer. He says short-staffed volunteer departments impact public safety. “We can’t just be sending one person during the day to a fire. There’s a house on fire -- that’s not the ideal way to fight a house fire... Finding those people is always one of our biggest challenges.”

Wermer says that’s because they have a small pool of residents to pull from and it doesn’t help to recruit from other towns. “We need you to be from South Hero, otherwise we’re just hurting another town’s recruitment and retention pool, which is why that small town figure is so impactful on our ability to have a large roster.”

The department’s recruitment committee says they’re looking to fill at least six volunteer positions. Wermer says that’s because older volunteers want to phase out and the department wants to ensure that they have members available for calls at all times. “We come in if there is a call. The station is otherwise -- is not staffed with fire personnel,” Wermer said.

Especially when members are at their day jobs. Wermer says many factors make it tough to find and retain volunteer firefighters. “Family commitments, work commitments, and just life in general, is a challenge,” he said. “Forty years ago you’d walk in the door, we’d shake your hand and say, ‘Here’s your gear, get on the truck, let’s go.’ Now, there are hundreds of hours of training required.”

Wermer says it’s a tough job, but he really likes it. “to be perfectly honest -- hot, hard work... It can be a little unpleasant sometimes,” he admitted. In addition to the satisfaction of saving lives, every volunteer gets a Christmas stocking filled with gifts every year and a yearly thank-you dinner. “We try to make a positive work environment for people. We understand people are volunteering their time to be here.”

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