Five different possibilities emerge for Bellows Falls FD

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BELLOWS FALLS —The Bellows Falls Fire Department currently costs $602,030 a year to run. If the fire department were on-call only it would cost $234,412, and if it were completely volunteer the department would cost $188,230.

The volunteer only and on-call only fire departments are two of five models the Bellows Falls Fire Committee intends to present to the trustee board.

Thursday's committee meeting saw a full house with community members and firefighters showing up. Rockingham Fire Chief Dennis Jeffrey was a special guest at the meeting. Jeffrey helped answer committee member's questions about the level of service he's able to provide running a volunteer, on-call fire department.

When coming up with fire department models, Municipal Manager Shane O'Keefe said the committee should consider service first and foremost, while his main concern was to pay the bills.

"It's a level of service discussion and then the money follows that," he said.

The committee currently has five models they'd like to present to the board. The first model is entirely volunteer, even the fire chief would forgo compensation in this model.

The second is on-call firefighters. This model would compensate volunteers a small hourly rate whenever they respond to calls. It would also stipend a fire chief $7,500 a year. O'Keefe estimated the entire payroll expense for the department to be $35,400. Shaun Mcginnis, a current Bellows Falls on-call firefighter, stated that these numbers seemed high. He thought there was slim likelihood of getting 10 people to respond to most calls. Most people he said, are currently only paid $10 or $11 an hour.

Larry Clark suggested a third option where the village fund a full-time chief, or just a full-time position of some sort.

"It gives you that utility and is still cost efficient," Clark said. It would help with the everyday calls, Clark said. He's not concerned about people not showing up to fires but a full-time firefighter would ensure someone has to show up to more mundane calls.

He also thought a full-time employee could help public relations. The chief could go to schools for classroom presentations and have meet-ups with the community.

Wade Masure came up with the fourth and fifth model.

"I'm not saying they could work here," Masure said. "But they could, they work in other places."

The fourth model would be an on-call department, like the one presented in the second model, but with a sleeper program added. The sleeper program has two people staying in the firehouse every night so that they can respond to calls right away.

The fifth model would also keep the on-call department, but it would have a stand-by rate. Masure said he was currently on stand-by for the Rockingham department, while at the meeting. Firefighters would get paid a small amount to be near the fire house. They wouldn't be allowed to drink or be in anyway indisposed in the event of a call.

"It's another option to guarantee that you always have coverage," Masure said.

Bellows Falls Firefighter, Anthony James said that Chester had a similar model and that Bellows Falls often got called to assist Chester. James added that volunteer departments have trouble getting people to show up.

Jeffrey, who said his fire department was strictly volunteer, said that on the rare instance where no one responds to a fire call within five minutes, the next department will get it.

"If there's a fire most of them show up," Jeffrey said of his firefighters. Some committee members were concerned that if Bellows Falls went volunteer they might have to compete with Rockingham for volunteers. Jeffrey didn't think that would happen.

Gaetano Putignano, who volunteers at the Saxtons River Fire Department, said he'd gotten a call for propane odor and he said 11 firefighters showed up to it.

Jeffrey did admit that the Rockingham and Bellows Falls department day to day would look very different.

"They get a lot more calls," Jeffrey said of Bellows Falls.

Another question posed at Jeffrey was the challenge of getting new volunteers. Jeffrey admitted that that was a struggle. Gaetano, said he saw three "younger guys," at one of his classes in Saxtons River and imagined the younger generation of Bellows Falls would also step up.

James spoke up.

"We're the younger generation," he said of himself and Gaetano. "To me that's scary. My back's starting to hurt."

Mcginnis had a question for Masure. He asked Masure, who worked on the Bellows Falls Fire Department for a number of years, what changed his mind about the level of staffing needed.

Masure said technology, the small size of the village, the decrease in structure fires and his knowledge of the way other municipalities handle fire safety.

Mcginnis argued that there were, "politically incorrect," reasons that Bellows Falls receives more calls and needs more services than other municipalities.

The next fire committee meeting will be Thursday at 9 a.m. on the third floor of the Bellows Falls Opera House.

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