Williston fire coverage not guaranteed, chief says

March 6 vote: More career or volunteer?

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Editor’s note: This week the Observer looks at fire services in Williston. Last week we looked at the town’s Emergency Medical Services.

Once the call came in on the evening of Dec. 13 that a Chapman Lane house was on fire, by national standards the Williston Fire Department took a long time to get there.

Chief Ken Morton said he arrived at the Moon house within five minutes. Within 10 minutes, Morton said three others had arrived – two of whom were not qualified to enter a burning building, if it had been needed. Within 15 minutes, three more firefighters were at the scene.

“All engines should be there within eight minutes,” said Carl Peterson, assistant director of the National Fire Protection Association Fire Protection Division , referring to ideal response time. “The first one should be there within four minutes, carrying four people.”

If the call had come in earlier – when a full-time staff was on – or had Williston had full-time staff working nights, a crew of four could have been there faster, Morton said.

Volunteer staff “can live anywhere from a mile and a quarter to six miles from the firehouse,” Morton said. Clearing a car of snow and driving into the station “can chew up (to) the first seven minutes of the call.”

Because there is no guarantee that enough trained people will show up at the scene of a fire in Williston on nights and weekends, and because the number of calls has grown, Morton said, Williston needs to consider relying more heavily on career firefighters.

On March 6, Williston voters will decide if they approve of adding six full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians to the town payroll to cover nights and weekends. The proposal includes the creation of a town-run ambulance, staffed by the same firefighters/EMTs. Approval of Article 9 would mean at least three full-time staff covering fire and emergency medical calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A five-year $621,000 federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant would pay all of the salaries for the first two years, and part of the salaries in years three to five. The remainder of the initiative would be paid for by ambulance service revenue and property taxes. In the initiative’s most expensive year, town officials estimate it will cost homeowners $20 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.

Few structure fires, calls increasing

Between 2001 and 2005 – Williston’s peak call year to date – fire calls in town increased 142 percent. Emergency medical calls in that time increased 49 percent.

Of the 773 fire calls in 2005 reported in the department’s federal SAFER grant application, more than 50 percent were false alarms and service/good intent calls (for example, someone sees a car on the side of the road and calls it in). One-third of calls were for hazardous conditions like a downed electrical wire or icy roads. Fires included 12 structural fires, 10 vehicle fires, and nine vegetation fires.

Safety in numbers

Williston currently employs four full-time firefighter/EMTs in addition to Chief Morton. Those staff members cover fire and first-response emergency medical calls Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., the time Morton says the majority of calls are made.

On nights and weekends, fire calls are covered by a network of about 20 on-call volunteers. Though they are paid for each call made, they are “volunteer” because they are not required to respond to any given call in the same way as full-time staff.

Of Williston’s 12 structure fires in 2005, the department assembled the minimum number of firefighters in compliance with National Fire Protection Association standards only six times, according to the department’s application for a federal grant.

“The numbers have been down,” on-call firefighter Earl Davies said. “A lot of times we go out of the station with only two or three (people) on an engine which shouldn’t (happen). There should be at least four.”

Those four people represent what is called the “two-in, two-out” standard, as outlined by the National Fire Protection Association and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For their own safety, firefighters should only enter a burning building in pairs, and only when there is at least one pair outside the building to monitor them and if necessary initiate rescue and call for backup. The two-in, two-out requirement is waived under OSHA standards when a life is in jeopardy. State and local government employees are not governed by those OSHA standards, though they are the common sense standards in firefighting circles.

If the March 6 proposal passes, three full-time firefighters/EMTs would be on staff nights and weekends, Morton said, still requiring at least one on-call firefighter for each shift.

On-call firefighter Geoff Elder, who said he responds to about 70 percent of all fire calls days and nights, concurred with Davies’ assessment that fewer on-call firefighters seem to be responding to calls. Volunteer firefighters have other significant commitments like jobs and families.

“You don’t know what the call is until you get there,” Elder said. For a faulty alarm system, he acknowledged you don’t need many people responding. He added, however, that “if it’s something more serious and you only have three or four people, you’re starting off behind.”

Mixed qualifications

The State of Vermont has no minimum qualifications for a volunteer firefighter, according to Vermont Fire Academy Chief of Training Jim Litevich. Many volunteers, though, do try to get all the training they can, he said.

Williston’s four full-time firefighters are certified at both the Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 levels, the latter a more advanced training than the basic Firefighter 1 curriculum.

Williston’s on-call staff training is mixed, according to Morton. Fifty percent (11) do not hold current certifications – their certifications have lapsed or they became volunteers under an older training curriculum. The other 50 percent are certified at either the Firefighter 1 (5 volunteers) or Firefighter 2 (4 volunteers) level. Two new recruits will complete Firefighter 1 certification this spring.

“The reason for recertification is to keep them fresh and up to speed in case they haven’t used some of those skills,” Litevich said. Lapsed certifications do not mean incompetence, he said; they can still do the job.

“If they’ve taken a course and passed it, they still have a lot of that knowledge base,” he said.

Morton said he highly values the work on-call firefighters do, which is why they’ll continue to be integral to fire call response staffing. On the lapsed certifications, he noted that it’s already hard to get volunteers who can commit the number of hours required to not only get certified, but maintain that certification, and train on the department’s wide range of equipment.

“If I squeezed on call (staff) and forced them to get certification, we’d lose more of them,” he said.