• In harm’s way
    March 13,2014

    Vermont is on pace to break another record. According to a news release issued Wednesday morning from the American Red Cross, a fire in Milton overnight marked the 68th time since Jan. 1 that the organization’s services have been required. That translates into 190 people affected by fires and support for more than 1,000 first responders at fire scenes. Those numbers do not include chimney fires and other incidents where families were not displaced.

    At this rate, the Red Cross is estimating it could support up to 220 regional responses this year. Four years ago, statewide, there were 106 regional responses by the American Red Cross, and the number has increased every year since. That is a disturbing trend.

    This winter, with its bitter cold temperatures and the constant barrage of storms, fire departments statewide have reported a sharp increase in incidents, some by as much as 20 percent over last year at this time. While there have been more cases of carelessness with heating devices, like poorly maintained wood stoves and chimneys or space heaters, there have been other factors apparently at play. There have been more “fluke” fires in older buildings — a trend that fire inspectors point to as evidence that our older housing stock, when not maintained well, is at a greater risk. Vermont has one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation.

    The demand on the Red Cross, which provides assistance like temporary lodging, vouchers for food and clothing, referrals for some medical needs, and links to other assistance networks, has been substantial. The local chapter has kept pace with the brutal demand so far in 2014 (but they will always accept donations).

    The extra demand on our fire departments, however, has revealed certain gaps in coverage.

    Nobody wants to think that when tragedy strikes, there could be a problem. But the fact is that the 11 full-time departments in Vermont, as well as a few staffed stations sprinkled around the state, are serving the state’s bigger markets quite well, mostly meeting federal (and state) guidelines for response times: Four minutes after the 911 call a truck is on scene; eight minutes after the 911 call, support arrives. But in some rural corners of the state (which is most of the state), the demands put on smaller departments by these myriad fires have placed a greater demand on mutual aid (and even some full-time departments), often leaving sending towns vulnerable.

    The days of every town having a fire department is not only not really affordable, it’s not entirely practical anymore. The issue is no longer focused on local control; it’s come down to the demands being put on people choosing to become firefighters. It very much has come down to individual control. And that has led to a shortage in some communities.

    The reasons are legit. Many volunteer departments around the state face the daunting challenge of needing to build membership, which proves more and more difficult with the rigorous training requirements to be certified for certain duties, as well as the sacrifice to family, which is significant. There are also generation gaps within departments that make certain duties for older volunteers harder, like taking part in rescues. The demands, under intense pressure and danger, are immense and require flawless execution. (There are certain staffing guidelines, too, but many Vermont departments just don’t meet them.)

    It all comes down to training. Today’s firefighters have to meet 21st-century demands — including getting associate or bachelor’s degrees, attending the fire academy, as well as receiving emergency medical training to be either an EMT or a paramedic — just to be considered for a full-time firefighting position. Those jobs are rare in Vermont.

    Firefighters have, for all intents and purposes, become all-hazards response groups, according to Ben O’Brien, president of Professional Firefighters of Vermont. Even many ambulance drivers are actually firefighters working out of a station, he said.

    O’Brien confirmed what headlines have stated: that call volume has increased statewide in recent years. On Wednesday, he pointed to how training is just as important as equipment and keeping firefighters safe on the job. Is there a paradigm shift in how Vermont departments serve our rural state? Likely, he said, but the mutual aid system is working for now. The demand is being met, but things could be better.

    These are necessary and demanding jobs — the kind of professionals we take for granted until we need their services, usually on the worst bad days.

    With more of those days happening, we must be grateful these local heroes are trained well to stand in harm’s way.

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