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Senator Bernie Sanders holds town hall on rural fire department and EMS challenges

Fire Rescue vehicle
Pat Bradley
Fire Rescue vehicle

Senator Bernie Sanders recently hosted a virtual town hall with Vermont firefighters and EMS personnel to discuss funding and staffing challenges facing rural departments in Vermont and across the country.

The National Volunteer Fire Council reports two-thirds of firefighters nationally are volunteer and their numbers reached a 40-year low in 2017. Meanwhile call volume tripled over the past 30 years.

According to FEMA data, 4.4 percent of fire departments in Vermont are career and the remainder are volunteer.

Senator Sanders said it will take a combination of local, state and federal resources to provide the needed resources.

“In most cases what I am hearing is there are very serious challenges related to recruitment and retention of first responders. That seems to be a problem facing all of our departments large or small. I’m especially concerned that in rural areas dependent on volunteers we are reaching a very challenging situation where diminished staffing is creating a situation where smaller communities may not be able to respond effectively.”

Bristol Fire Chief Brett LaRose listed numerous recruitment and retention challenges facing emergency response departments across the state.

“There’s inconsistent training requirements. There’s greater public expectation of the fire department’s response capabilities with hazmat, technical rescue, etc. Abuse of emergency services by the public so that leads to increased call volume. Employers are less willing to let employees off to run the calls. And people just don’t have the time to give to their volunteer fire department.”

The Thetford Fire Department is contracted by the town to provide fire, EMS and rescue services. Deputy Chief Mariah Whitcomb noted funding is one of their challenges.

"One of the challenges that we see with all of our departments: how do we fund our departments adequately without continuing to raise taxes on folks that are already struggling? Recruitment and retention is also an issue. That is the trouble that we are seeing across our departments. And it’s not for lack of interest necessarily. Mostly it’s lack of time, lack of resources, lack of incentive," said Whitcomb. "There’s a reason the people on this call have been doing this work for so long. We have pride in this. So how do we encourage that in some of our younger folks?”

Miss Vermont Danielle Morse is a firefighter with the Whiting Volunteer Fire Department. She started in a cadet program eight years ago and says there must be a concerted effort to get young people interested in volunteering at local fire departments.

“As a teenager if we had a program that was more welcoming to cadets and starting off fresh it would be less intimidating to join. There’s also benefits that we could kind of rope in through high schools. I’ve seen the benefits. I’ve become more confident and I’ve done things that I never thought I could be able to do before. And it’s important because eventually it’ll be my age group that’ll be running the fire department. We need to have that backbone. And if I hadn’t joined at 15 I wouldn’t have felt as confident walking into Fire One.”

Sanders plans to introduce legislation to substantially increase federal aid to career and volunteer fire departments.

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