The Guilford Fire Department now offers $5 gas cards to each volunteer when they respond to a call. Despite efforts, however, Chief Dan Stoughton says they've had a basic core of volunteers that has been there for 20 years, with very little new blood coming in.
Other fire departments are forced to make paid positions to fill tough shifts when most volunteers are working. Stoughton says this is likely to happen with many more departments in the future. Guilford just made his position paid this month.
However, paying firefighters means the town has to find the money, which usually means raising taxes.
Stoughton says the local departments are also forced to depend more on mutual aid, which calls in local towns to help with bigger emergencies.
However, even this can only help so much. Stoughton recalled a flood two years ago when the towns all had to take care of themselves and couldn't depend on mutual aid. Once the mutual system is used to capacity, the towns still need to pay.
"Ultimately, it will be up to the taxpayers. We'll present it to them and say, 'Here are your options, unless someone can come up with a better solution,' and right now I don't know what that is," Stoughton said.
The Vermont Department
"For a lot of fire departments, it will be kind of a shopping cart approach," Howe said. It will be "what might work well for my fire department?"
There are many theories as to why the shortage is occurring. A big piece is that people just don't have the time that they used to.
He doesn't believe that people don't want to help out. "I think people are still committed to their communities, but the demands to do the job have increased. We have overwhelming support from the town, but they're still not knocking down the doors to volunteer."
Training alone requires 144 hours to get the basic certification and an additional 156 hours for department-specific training that Guilford requires. A lot of this extra time commitment came about after Sept. 11, when the government required firefighters to take special training.
Also, grants became available which required firefighters to spend time doing paperwork.
Then there is an average of 400 hours a year on calls. As populations increase, too, fire departments have more calls. Stoughton said Guilford has had 15 to 20 percent more calls each year.
Brattleboro Assistant Fire Chief Peter Lynch said his department has seen the same problem. "It's an awfully big commitment, we're so grateful to have the people we have."
Brattleboro Fire Department currently responds to nearly 2,000 calls a year. It has a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters.
"With the amount required to do the job, I think you're going to see more and more departments have some sort of paid staff," Lynch said. "We have to rely on each other more and more for help in big emergencies."
Also, the average age of Vermonters has gone up steadily, as second homeowners retire here and students go off to college and settle down in other places. While Stoughton says he doesn't have much of a problem yet, it is clear that he will soon when his group gets older and isn't replenished.
"It's a younger person's game and we're finding that younger people out of college have bills to pay and new careers and new families and the time commitment to keep up with it all," Stoughton said.
Right now, the average age of his volunteers is around 30. Usually when volunteers hit their 50s, he said, they begin to draw down their time volunteering.
While both Guilford and Brattleboro see a lot of interest in young volunteers, "a lot of the kids go to college and move on," Lynch said. "It's great for other areas but it kind of hurts us."
Rather than volunteering a weekly commitment of time, many residents will offer to help with fundraising or to bring food to firefighters on call. "No one wants to commit to the time it takes to do the job, and who can blame them?" Stoughton said.
Rescue Inc. has put in place a system that allows it to work around volunteers' schedules. It also tries to pay as many related costs for training as possible, Chief of Operations Mark Considine said. "What we try to do is actually really re-enforce the value of the volunteers. They are very important to the equation."
The lack of volunteers is by no means exclusive to emergency services. Many town governments are finding it difficult to get people to join committees.
Guilford Town Clerk Barbara Oles said she's seen this deficit with the town's committees. "You kind of have to pound the pavement to find people to serve on committees. Everyone's lives are so busy. These young people have to work full time to make ends meet and it's very hard and they have families."
"I don't know what the answer is," Oles said. "Sometimes you work with less or you finally find someone or someone stays on a lot longer than they really would want to just to make sure it runs smoothly."
Many schools have put community service requirements in place to graduate. Twin Valley High School is one of these.
"The prime motivation for us was the idea that we have an obligation to teach social development skills, and one of those pieces is understanding the value of volunteering in a practical sense," Principal Frank Spencer said.
Spencer believes that students leaving and settling down in other towns is part of human nature, but if students are taught the benefits of volunteering, they'll bring that mentality to their new towns. "To not do it, if we're the only ones doing it, at least we're doing the right thing. We hope others will do it and we'll all benefit."
Even on school committees, though, they see the shortage when it comes to a regular commitment. "Last year we tried to get a parent/teacher group going. We heard from many that, 'if you have a special event, call and I'll help, but I'm not able to commit a night a month.'"
Nicole Orne can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.