Wanted: New Generation Of Volunteer Firefighters

Randolph Village and Randolph Center firefighters tend the smoldering pile of debris after a 2015 destroyed the building on South Main Street that housed China Jade and Vt. BBQ restaurants and Mid-State Sports. (Herald File / Tim Calabro)

If a fire breaks out here in central Vermont, a 911 call will bring firefighters within minutes. We all know that and expect that.

What’s amazing, though, is that nowhere in The Herald’s readership area will that 911 call be directed to a fire station staffed by well-paid professionals. The firemen and women who come to your door will be members of a volunteer fire department, roused from their homes or interrupted at their place of work.

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Rural Vermont’s reliance on volunteer firefighters is the stuff of legend, but there’s little recognition of just how much work it entails and how grueling that work can be.

It’s also important to note that it’s becoming a bit more difficult to sustain the voluntary fire departments— and in particular to find new, younger members. That trend led to recent advertisements in this newspaper looking for new recruits.

The Herald this week spoke to the chiefs of the three Randolph departments—one each in Randolph Village, Randolph Center and East Randolph. All three pointed to a growing average age amongst the volunteers. None of them felt a serious shortage of personnel, but all hoped to attract more younger people.

Randolph Village Chief Jay Collette spoke for all of them when he said, “We’re always looking.” The force is not significantly reduced compared to recent years, but “we need more, absolutely,” he said.

“Without new blood we can’t sustain things.”

“We could use a couple more,” echoed East Randolph Chief Jacob Boule.

Equal Numbers

The three departments have almost equal numbers of current volunteers— 17 in the Village department and 18 each in the Center and East Valley. The Village department had 25 members several years ago, Collette noted.

The Randolph Center department has two openings right now, said Chief Ken Preston. “We want younger kids, but they don’t stay,” he said, pointing to the more fluctuating residency patterns.

That department also benefits from the presence of Vermont Technical College, which has a Fire Science program. Preston is usually able to count on getting three or four students as part of his firefighting squad, but now there’s just one young lady.

The students, he noted, can’t take hazardous roles but can be on the scene and give assistance during a fire, as well as sitting in on some investigations.

One student told him that the experience was “the best thing I ever did,” he said.

Impressive Longevity

The longevity of some of the volunteers is impressive. In the Village department, Larry Thurston has put in 47 years and Chief Collette has 35, while Wayne Warner has put in 32.

Chief Preston (a dairy farmer who milks 125 cows) has the longest record in the Center department with 42 years, with Tim Angell “just two years behind me.” Several others have served more than 30 years, he said.

The East Randolph department also has several long-timers. Phil Hyde is the longest-serving member with more than 30 years in the force; several others have put in more than 20 years. Chief Boule has been on the job 18 years, becoming chief in 2010.

And it’s not an easy commitment, all three chiefs stressed. The village department requires its members to put in 25 hours of training to become full members with a Level 1 certification, and then they are expected to take more courses every year.

New recruits without full training can help at fires but can’t do interior fires or hazmat sites, Collette explained.

Once accepted, the recruits know they are on duty seven days a week and 24 hours a day, he noted.

“It puts a lot of pressure on family life. They will have to make personal sacrifices. They’ve got to really want to do it.”

Of those who are recruited, about two of five “stick with it,” he said.

Role of Employers

The employers of the recruits have a vital role, too, he noted, as they must permit the employee to leave when the fire alarm goes off.

That’s perhaps easier for businesses with more employees, he noted. He said he saw a “big change” when Ethan Allen Co. left town; it hired a lot of workers and was cooperative about letting them go on fire calls.

“Now you never know where (a firefighter) is at the moment,” Collette said.

And, according to Chief Preston, “Don’t even ask how much time the job takes.”

Still, he said, the satisfaction of the job is paramount: fire victims “are good people, and we try to help them.”

Even when their efforts fail, it’s worthwhile, he said.

He recalled one instance when his department was unable to save a house, which eventually burned to the ground.

“The woman who lived there still came up to me and thanked me over and over” for his attempt to stem the flames.

“It made me want to cry,” he said.

How To Join Up

The three chiefs are all ears if someone wants to try out the job.

Collette suggested finding a friend who’s already a member for advice or calling him directly at 728-9032. Applicants are given an “employment package” explaining the job and will be interviewed.

Preston suggested that interested people simply come to one of the Randolph Center Department meetings held every Monday at 7 p.m. at the fire station.

It’s All in A Year’s Work

The three Randolph fire departments were called out a total of 245 times in 2016, according to the Randolph Town Report.

Of these, some 50 were false alarms.

Only 20 were either structure or chimney fires—13 of them in the Village.

Other calls were for: vehicle accidents (44), DHART responses (20), smoke alarms (38), and grass fires or un-permitted burns (10).

The workings of the three departments are coordinated by the town’s Fire Advisory Board, chaired by Kermit LaBounty, which brings proposed expenditures for fire trucks and other equipment to the selectboard

The budget for all three departments for fiscal year 2017 was set at $300,000.

Though the departments are described as “volunteer” departments, the firefighters are technically called “paid call volunteers,” according to Chief Jay Collette. They are paid—at the minimum wage—for their hours fighting fires and also for hours spent in meetings or in training.

(This first appeared in the Herald of Randolph March 23, 2017)

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