Sounding the alarm: More calls, fewer responders

Fire and EMS response has changed over the years with a record number of calls for help but fewer firefighters hopping on trucks.
Published: May. 11, 2023 at 5:58 AM EDT
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WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Fire and EMS response has changed over the years, with a record number of calls for help but fewer firefighters hopping on trucks. That has departments across the state working to figure out how to get more people to join.

In an emergency, you expect to see first responders. They’ll come, but statewide it’s been increasingly more challenging.

Stowe Fire Chief Scott Reeves said they hit a record-breaking number of calls last year, around 900 for EMS and around 500 for fire.

“We continue to seek growth in our town. That just means the more call for services, which means we need more people on the roster-- trained people on the roster-- that can respond in those times of need,” he said.

In the last 20 years, Reeves said fires have been different too.

“It’s the different materials that they use. They’re petroleum-based, which makes fires much more intense. They spread rapidly. So, in order to change, the fire service has changed their training and their tactics,” he explained.

Reeves said 16 years ago there were around 45 members on the roster. Today, they have 25.

Fire and EMT crews agree the crux of staffing struggles is the time commitment and the training.

“Both programs, whether it’s a fire certification or an EMS certification, can be very lengthy. So, that’s a pretty huge commitment for any member of the community to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that course and work to the end and take a certification exam,’ just to then turn around and volunteer for their community,” Stowe EMT Chief Scott Brinkman said.

“This person is leaving up to six times a day or seven, eight, 10 times a day for calls. They might not all be fires, but the community needs help,” Williston Fire Capt. Prescott Nadeau said.

Nadeau also noted requirements have gotten more intense over the years. As a result, the textbook firefighters use to train has gotten much bigger.

“Back in the day, it was let’s learn how to cut a car apart. Yes, there are some hazards like airbags and seat belt pretensioners. Now, we’re dealing with the electric vehicles, we’re dealing with hybrid vehicles, dealing with the alternative fuel sources, hydrocarbons, everything like that. That suddenly presents a much greater hazard,” Nadeau said.

The types of departments have evolved, too. Both Stowe and Williston are a hybrid of volunteer and career firefighters. They said they want to get people fired up to give back to the community.

Saturday, there’s a statewide recruiting initiative called Operation MayDay where more than 70 departments are hosting an open house.

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