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Small town fire departments struggling to find volunteers

Webster’s all-volunteer fire department is in transition while Deputy Chief Rob Wolinski decides whether to step into the role of chief after Colin Colby resigned several weeks ago. The time commitment required in a volunteer department is a factor in both decisions and one that several area fire chiefs and officials say makes recruiting new volunteers increasingly harder.

“It’s very tough now for all communities, not just Webster,” said Roy Fanjoy, a Webster selectman who worked in fire service for more than 20 years.

Colby said he resigned for personal reasons after serving as chief for five years and volunteering for more than 20, during many of which he commuted to Massachusetts for full-time work. Wolinski, meanwhile, works full time as a firefighter in Hooksett, teaches fire training courses part time for the state and has three children. Webster has about 18 active volunteers who could be called at any time to respond to the average 175 fire and medical calls the department receives each year.

“We of course are struggling to get some new people to join, being a small town. And it’s a very big time commitment,” Wolinski said.

About 80 percent of the state’s fire departments are volunteer or on-call, according to the New Hampshire Division of Fire Standards and Training’s website. Volunteers are paid nothing or a small yearly stipend, while on-call workers receive stipends per call or hours worked. Area fire chiefs said greater work and family demands, as well as fewer employers allowing volunteers to leave work and respond to calls, is causing a decline in volunteers. Departments that rely primarily on volunteers include Dunbarton, Boscawen and Allenstown. Although some towns have one or two part- or full-time firefighters, adding paid positions brings a price tag that can be hard to get past voters.

The state doesn’t mandate training for volunteer firefighters, but most departments require their own.

Fire departments today are also dealing with more medical calls, which require, according to state law, that at least two licensed personnel respond. Many local fire departments now run their own ambulance services for medical transport because it’s quicker than relying on another department or private transport service.

In Dunbarton, about 50 percent of the annual 250 calls require an ambulance, said Chief Jon Wiggin, adding that the town has about 30 volunteers, 20 of whom are active.

Several of those volunteers work for employers that allow them to leave occasionally to respond to calls, Wiggin said. That has become far less common, however, for many other departments. Canterbury fire Chief Peter Angwin said most of his volunteers can’t leave work during the day and have family obligations at night. Voters approved moving Angwin from volunteer to part time this March, and the department has one full-time firefighter. But the other 20 volunteers, some of whom live outside Canterbury, receive a stipend of only a few hundred dollars each year.

“You get burnt out after a while; you can’t keep putting in all these hours,” Angwin said. “Plus it doesn’t make for a good family life if you’re spending more time (with) no money coming in.”

Fire departments do receive help from neighboring towns through the Capital Area Fire Mutual Aid Compact, which serves 22 towns. Capt. Ernie Petrin of the Concord Fire Department supervises area dispatch services. Some 911 calls, such as building fires, automatically request assistance from neighboring departments, he said. But for every call, dispatchers seek mutual aid if the home town has not responded within eight minutes. Between 2 and 6 p.m. is the hardest time of day to find available responders, Petrin said.

“Maybe back two decades ago people used to work in town more often, and now people have to leave town to get a decent job, so there’s not as many people available during the day,” Petrin said. “It’s a decision between, ‘Do I put food on the table?’ or ‘Do I go to a call to help somebody?’ ”

There are potential solutions to the problem of limited personnel, said David Lang, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, which represents paid firefighters. In central and southern New Hampshire, there are local unions that represent workers at departments with one or two paid firefighters. Lang said regional labor agreements that allow career firefighters to respond to calls in a number of communities could help staffing shortfalls. No such agreement exists at this time, but one is possible in the future, he said.

Even though serving as a volunteer firefighter can put a strain on one’s personal and professional life, many see it as an important and necessary way to give back to the community. For Wolinski, the acting chief in Webster, the extra demands of volunteering are worth it.

“I don’t consider (firefighting) a job, it’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s part of who I am.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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