Volunteer firefighters in short supply

Volunteer firefighters in short supply

Chief Robert Fisher

Fewer Rhode Islanders are volunteering to spend their free time fighting fires in their towns, leading to questions about the future of the old-time practice.

Chief Robert Fisher, of the Saylesville Fire Department on Chapel Street in Lincoln, said the district has about six volunteers, who are paid roughly $4.25 for each call they respond to.

Those calls, he noted, can last from 30 minutes to several hours. Sometimes it means responding to a scene, Fisher said, and other times it means volunteers are manning the station while firefighters and fire trucks are out on the road responding to calls.

The most difficult time to get volunteers, Fisher said, is Monday through Friday.

“It’s not like it used to be,” Fisher said, explaining that over time, fewer people are stepping up to the volunteer role.

He said there’s two main reasons for that:

• People have less time to spend with their families because they’re working so much at their regular jobs.

• The required training involved is too time consuming.

Fisher said the process to become a volunteer requires several steps, including submitting an application, having references checked, going to the station for an interview, making the cut with the fire district’s personnel board, passing a background check and receiving either EMT or firefighter certificates from the Rhode Island State Fire Academy.

Training sessions are paid for by the department, Fisher said, and the class can last from one to three hours. Volunteers, Fisher said, are alerted through their phones about calls, and they respond to calls if they’re available.

The chief said the department does not do any recruitment, and gets most of its volunteers through “word of mouth.”

“The risk is very high with this job,” Fisher said.

“You’re asking a significant amount of time … for little to no money.”

The Quinnville Fire Department, at 861 Lower River Road, is Lincoln’s only all-volunteer fire department. It is headed by Chief Stephen Nunes, who did not return a call from The Breeze.

The fire district’s Facebook page reads that volunteers are wanted, and interested individuals can call 401-333-0081 for more information.

Many local fire departments, including North Smithfield, Cumberland and North Providence, did away with having volunteer firefighters years ago.

In Cumberland, Chief Kenneth Finlay disbanded the volunteer program when he took over. Mayor Bill Murray said there was generally a lack of solid commitment from volunteers, and Finlay likes a structured environment.

In North Smithfield, the last of the volunteers disappeared in 2002 when North Smithfield Fire and Rescue merged with the Primrose Volunteer Fire Department. Now, all of the town’s firefighters are paid.

“They’re getting harder and harder to find,” said North Smithfield Fire Chief Joel Jillson. “The numbers of volunteers are dwindling as we speak.”

Communities that do use volunteers are finding that many younger people today are valuing their free time more than ever.

Is it difficult to find new recruits? Chief Robert Greenway of the Station 50 Potterville Fire Department on Tunk Hill Road in Foster was quick to answer, “absolutely.”

“I have more volunteers from out of town than in town,” Greenway, a Scituate resident, said.

With 24 volunteers, Potterville Fire Department sometimes struggles to find coverage, especially during standard daytime hours.

“Life’s a little busier now,” Greenway explained. “Most people have a full time job now.”

The location of the department can also impact recruitment, Greenway said. Since Potterville Fire Department is in a rural location, it’s farther from places of employment, which might serve as a deterrent to workers who are already tight on time.

But for those who do volunteer their time as a firefighter, the experience can bring about new opportunities.

“I know that I’ve had 11 or 12 who started as volunteers and landed a full-time position with another department,” Greenway said. “It’s a stepping stone.”

He added that volunteers do not necessarily have to be firefighters. The department needs assistance with paperwork, grant applications, and facility maintenance.

“We’re always in need of volunteers,” he said.

Saylesville volunteer firefighter Jake Charbonneau, 18, said he’s proud to serve the town he grew up in. He started out in the “junior firefighter” program at 17 years old.

Charbonneau said until volunteers are at least 18 and complete “Firefighter 1” training, they are restricted in the tasks they can perform for the district, but are there to perform a variety of services, including providing assistance at scenes, handing over tools to EMT workers, or covering the fire station while first responders are out on a call.

Now a student studying criminal justice at University of Rhode Island, Charbonneau said he has less time to volunteer, though he is currently training in the “Firefighter 1” session at the Rhode Island State Fire Academy.

Charbonneau said he receives texts and calls from Lincoln dispatch, and when he’s home, and not working on the weekends, he can respond to the fire station.

Since he joined the junior firefighter program in Saylesville 18 months ago, Charbonneau said he’s responded to hundreds of calls for the district.

Charbonneau encouraged other young individuals to check out the junior firefighter program, or volunteering for the district in general, adding that he’s the youngest of the group of volunteers.