Fire trucks arrive without staff to operate them

Two new fire trucks parked in front of the Williston Fire Department building

Report: Fire department needs at least twice the staff

By Jason Starr

Observer staff 

Two new fire trucks will be put into service this weekend at the Williston Fire Department. The trucks will give firefighters more reach and maneuverability to serve the increasingly urban town center and more water-carrying capacity to serve the rural side of town.

In theory, at least. 

In reality, the department lacks the staff to consistently operate the new equipment. Williston voters approved taking on $1.4 million of debt in 2019 to purchase the trucks. After some pandemic-related delays, they arrived at the station on Talcott Road in October. 

Simultaneous to their arrival, the department received a staffing needs report that Chief Aaron Collette commissioned to a consultant in the months after his hiring last fall. The report presents a sobering view of the department’s ability to provide fire and emergency medical coverage, especially in light of the town’s growth in population and buildings. 

“It’s almost like we’re presenting ourselves in sort of a false advertisement,” Collette told the selectboard in October. “I’m not sure we are as prepared or well-equipped as many of our citizens think we are. 

“We’re unable to meet the current demand for service … and that comes down to staffing.”

Currently, the department has between three and four firefighters on-duty around the clock. That staffing level has stayed relatively stable over recent years. However, there has been a precipitous drop in on-call firefighters. According to Collette, the department has gone from about 30 on-call firefighters in 2016 to eight currently. During an incident, it’s rare to have more than two of the on-call staff respond, he said.

“Recently we lost a very well-respected on-call firefighter. When he left the organization, he said, ‘it’s like a second job. I already have a career, I don’t need a second job.’ The demand is too much.”

The consultant’s report, completed by California-based AP Triton, recommends an immediate increase of nine career firefighters to the department. Over a five-year period, the report calls for nearly 40 new firefighters. That would increase the town’s overall budget by roughly $2.5 million annually.

“This is a crisis, I take it very seriously and we need to do something about it immediately, but that is a huge number for an $11 million (town) budget,” selectboard member Ted Kenney said. 

Collette advised the board to work with the fire department to weigh what level of fire risk the community is willing to accept against the cost of increased firefighting capacity.

“The more we add — the increased population, the increased traffic, more businesses, more residential buildings — the more our demand for services go up,” Collette said. 

The new fire engine has a rear-mounted 100-foot ladder and enough removable ground ladders for nine additional firefighters. The old truck had a middle-mounted 95-foot ladder with a bucket for a firefighter to work from. The new ladder doesn’t have the bucket, which makes it more maneuverable in tighter spaces, according to Deputy Fire Chief Tim Gerry, and the rear-mount allows the truck to get closer to a fire. It’s also 4 feet shorter in length, increasing maneuverability. 

“We’ll have far greater access to the different types of buildings being built in town with tight corners and tight parking spaces, being able to maneuver it in,” Gerry said. “It definitely will work better for us.”

The new truck also carries 500 gallons of water, compared to 300 on its predecessor. 

The department’s other new truck is a water tanker designed to respond to fires in the rural south side of town where there are no fire hydrants. It can carry 1,500 gallons of water. The truck it replaces carried 1,000 gallons and was longer and less nimble. 

“This has a better turning radius than anything we’ve had before,” Gerry said.

Both trucks are in the department’s garage, awaiting a day when Williston has enough firefighters to put them to full use. 

“We are far short of the minimum manpower that it takes to staff these (trucks),” Gerry said. “We have the equipment, we don’t have the people.”

On duty staff will bring the trucks to the scene of a fire, Gerry said, but would need help from neighboring fire departments to use them against a fire. 

In total, the fire department has four fire trucks, two ambulances and a utility pickup truck. 

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