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Vernon Fire Chief Todd Capen looks through his roster sheet to see how many volunteers he has on staff. Vernon currently has only 29 volunteer members, 11 shy of when Capen started in the department

VERNON >> Good help can be hard to find.

That's especially true for the Vernon Fire Department during the weekday afternoons.

"Most of the people work daytime shifts," Vernon Fire Chief Todd Capen said in an interview on Monday. "We are fortunate that we have employers some of the guys work for that do let them leave. That's a very big bonus."

Concerned, the department's safety officer Jesse Jobin and Capen are looking at ways to reach out to the public and drum up some interest in volunteering.

A brush fire at Cersosimo Industries earlier this month illustrated how the department has been responding to the issue of daytime coverage. Jobin, incident commander at the scene, began looking for other crews to come help right away.

"Nowadays, we rely on mutual aid pretty good," Capen said. "Especially during the day."

The department offers courses provided by local and state agencies. Members can choose to be firefighters or emergency medical technicians, or ideally both.

Approximately 85 to 90 percent of the department's calls are for emergency medical services.

"The EMS portion of the fire department is pretty strong," said Capen. "It's just the firefighting side. Guys and girls that actually go into burning buildings, that's where we're actually kind of tight."

Currently on the roster are 29 men and women. This amount is not small, according to Capen, who would like to see five or six people show interest with the hope that two or three may ultimately decide to join. There are 11 fewer members than when he first started 12 years ago.


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Capen's seeing firefighters not showing up to certain calls, the not-so-serious ones.

"If we did have a house fire, we'd have a majority of that 29 come," he said. "It just seems as though it's been a steady decline. You get one new member then you don't get anybody for awhile."

A few new members have joined, Capen said, and one had experience with another department. He worries there's not a whole lot of incentive to be a volunteer, especially when it requires answering a pager at 1 a.m. or 1 p.m.

"It's definitely not easy with juggling a family and full-time job. Then you come down and do your training," said Capen, explaining there are three nights of training each month with a monthly meeting on top. "Sometimes it can get to be overwhelming."

Having more members would "lighten the load" on the other members, he said. If five guys are fighting a brushfire in the afternoon then have to go to an incident later on, they can get pretty worn out.

While not speaking for every department, Capen said he thinks most departments could use more help. He has been looking at giving members gas cards to cover the price of fuel for coming out to calls.

"That's just a slow process," he said, noting the budgetary hardships in town with the nuclear plant Vermont Yankee's shutdown. "As people have said, 'The golden egg is not there anymore.'"

Vermont Yankee encouraged its employees to participate in their hometown fire departments, said Jobin. Employees would still be paid for hours missed when they went on a call.

Also, the plant owner Entergy had a program that Vermont Yankee used called "Dollars for Doers."

"You registered and for x number of hours you put into an organization, Entergy would give that organization $250," said Martin Cohn, company spokesman.

The program, now called "Community Connectors," is still available to employees at Vermont Yankee. But there's not going to be many employees left after the next phase of decommissioning leaves 100 more without a job at the plant.

Money from selling off equipment at Vermont Yankee is currently being donated to local nonprofits. While the Vernon Fire Department did not receive any funds, Cohn said it's getting equipment.

Even finding help with running fundraisers or providing water and food at a fire can prove challenging, Jobin said.

Another issue has to do with certification. Volunteers get through the 300 to 400 hours of training then use their new credentials to join a department that pays. And others decide firefighting just isn't for them.

"Finding volunteers in general is becoming a process," said Jobin. "You get some people who want to volunteer their time. They have the best intentions in the world but unfortunately they can't fill the shoes. It's really hard to tell somebody, 'I can't trust that I can go into a house and if I collapse, you'll grab me before I'm consumed by the fire.'"

He also worries about volunteers who might start "freelancing" during a fire, meaning they could act without taking direction from the chief.

Since going from a fire company to a town department, Jobin has seen a change.

"You have to be careful with money. You can't just vote on it and say yes," said Jobin, who also serves as president of the Vernon Fire Association. "Now, you have to go through the same thing as the other departments. There's people who just don't want to deal with it."

The department is proactive in trying to pull in more volunteers.

An "explorer program" introduces younger people to firefighting; they are eligible from the age of 14 to 21. According to Capen, the program usually sees 18-year-olds joining after participating.

"That was very big for a long time then it kind of dwindled then it picked up then it kind of dwindled down," he said.

Fire prevention activities are brought to Vernon Elementary School. But with students going off to Brattleboro Union High School or Pioneer Valley High School, Capen acknowledged it can be hard to reach those older kids.

Last year, the department added another fundraiser to the mix. The Vernon Fire Muster was "a really great thing to have," Capen said, as it gets area departments together and draws a crowd into town. It's also a way to get outsiders interested in the department.

"I think the townspeople that are watching it can see the fire and EMS service is a strict down-to-business organization but we can still have fun," said Capen. "This is a small town so word of mouth is a good thing. I think the community knows we would like help."

Residents are welcome to stop in on training nights held every Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Regarding current members of the department, Capen said, "The townspeople are very grateful for all their hard work that they provide to the fire department."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.