With the growing problem of recruiting and retaining firefighters, area volunteer fire departments are looking at new ways to fill their rosters.
Chief Peter Starkel of the Hebron Fire Department, which has about 30 members, including 15 active members, said that there was a general decline even before the COVID pandemic, with many of the volunteers leaving due to other commitments.
"Many of our folks work multiple jobs, greater family commitments," Starkel said. "Sports are year-round now. Folks' free time is not what it used to be. Downtime is so infrequent. A lot of people need it to recharge."
Starkel said his roster has decreased by over 50% in the past 10 years, leading to more work placed on fewer people, which then leads to burnout.
"There are good days and bad," Starkel said. "We do OK, but we're not immune to times where we're short staffed and have to rely on our mutual-aid partners."
Starkel said on the weekends, the department is short staffed and it has the bare minimum handling calls. He said the staffing size fluctuates based on the time of year and time of day. In the evening, he said, there is more help available due to personnel being home from work.
Starkel said that the town offers incentives to those who want to volunteer.
"The town has a tax abatement for volunteers that meet certain requirements. They get a reduction in property taxes," Starkel said. "There's a point system for responding to emergencies, attending training. They receive a stipend check at the end of the year."
Starkel said the department is using social media and mailers to reach out to potential recruits. The department has also been trying to do more regionally, including a joint recruitment event on Thursday at the Main Moose in Columbia.
Representatives from the Andover, Columbia, Coventry, Lebanon, and North Windham fire departments, as well as Hebron, were in attendance.
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Though the department recruits throughout the year, Starkel said larger events like this tend to attract more potential volunteers.
"We're taking part in this event because it's a larger audience," Starkel said. "Typically at a larger event, there's maybe half a dozen inquirers. Of those, one or two come to fruition."
The Coventry Fire Department has an active roster of 52 volunteers, including 10 females, 15 volunteers who are certified in fire and EMS services, and six junior members who are under the age of 18, but Fire Chief Bud Meyers said the department could use more members.
"If I were to put a number on how many volunteers we would need to maintain the services currently being provided to our citizens, it would be an additional 50 to 60 qualified EMS members," he said.
"Like most volunteer fire departments across the country, recruitment and retention is an area of high focus for the Coventry Fire Department," Meyers said. "We typically receive anywhere from one to four applications a month from individuals interested in joining the department."
Meyers said that the amount of time required to get certified is a common hurdle for new applicants.
"An entry level firefighter 1, or EMT course requires over 150 hours of training," he said.
Meyers said the firefighters and EMTs in his department are provided various incentives to promote retention and response.
"These incentives include nominal paid per-call stipends, Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP), workers compensation and supplemental insurance coverage, as well as covering tuition fees for a variety of fire and EMS courses," Meyers said.
Though the Manchester Fire Department is a paid department and not volunteer, Manchester Fire Chief Daniel French said that there is a hiring challenge across the spectrum in public safety and it is harder to attract and retain employees.
The Manchester Fire Department is a combination of firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics. French said the EMT and paramedic recruits must have their certifications prior to joining the department, and once they are accepted into the department, they receive firefighter training.
During the department's recent round of hiring, French said, only five females were hired, but one included a chief officer and a lieutenant.
French said the family aspect of the fire department keeps its employees together.
"We work hard at having a strong culture," French said. "Every two or three years, the town negotiates contracts. In the meantime, we work on putting a high priority on being one of the best in terms of service delivery, having leadership culture, and a family atmosphere. It attracts a lot of folks."