New fire chief appointed in Colchester

Published: Apr. 26, 2023 at 6:34 AM EDT
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COLCHESTER, Vt. (WCAX) - Colchester has a new fire chief. The Selectboard Tuesday night appointed Assistant Chief Seth Lasker to the role. It comes as the community continues to address what union members have said are dangerous labor shortages within the department.

The union representing Colchester firefighters has been in talks with the town administration since last August with hopes of hiring three additional career firefighters. Selectboard members Tuesday night said they will fill two of those positions, one as soon as possible and the other position after July 1.

“There have been 40 calls this year the department hasn’t even gone to, no one’s gone. So, could you imagine having a medical emergency in the town of Colchester and having no one respond to it?” said Ryan Fitzpatrick at an April 11 selectboard meeting.

At that meeting, person after person raised concerns about Colchester’s fire staffing. “As a mom of two 11-year-olds, I did not feel three full-time firefighters was a safe staffing situation,” said former Colchester firefighter Michelle Collins.

Shortly before this, the Colchester Fire Union had posted a letter accusing the town manager of holding the department’s open positions hostage, raising concerns over station coverage.

“We just didn’t have help. It was unsafe, we were losing staff members because they felt unsafe,” said firefighter Tyler Cootware.

In a memo following the April 11 meeting, town officials explained that it took them a long time to start filling the position, saying they’ve been fiscally constrained. Colchester Town Manager Aaron Frank pointed back to a decision the chief made in 2022. “Both staffing and the truck were not affordable. So, I let department leadership make the decision -- what was the more immediate need? Which was the truck,” said Frank.

But while all of this played out, Chief Stephen Bourgeois resigned. The chief has expressed concerns about a lack of volunteers and coverage for several years. “We’re in a risky business here, it actually takes a considerable amount of time and training to become a firefighter,” Bourgeois said in a December 2021 interview with WCAX.

Chief Seth Lasker says hiring two career firefighters is a good start and that he’s not opposed to a staffing study in the future. “Colchester is a growing vibrant community, and long-term it would probably be a good step to identify growth needs for the future,” he said.

In their recently released memo, the town stated Colchester has 12.5 career staff members and 117 volunteers bringing them above the area average. However, those numbers include St. Michael’s Rescue.

Colchester also has multiple stations and is geographically one of the largest municipalities in Chittenden County.

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Colchester Fire Dept. confronts town about staffing shortages