Shared from the 3/16/2016 The News-Times eEdition

REDDING

Boost sought for fire staffing

Officials look to recruit, retain volunteer members

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Pemberton

REDDING — Town leaders and fire chiefs have been struggling for months with how to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters, prompting the creation of a task force to come up with ideas.

Volunteer firefighters, they noted, often struggle with longer commutes, an inability to leave work to respond to calls and finding time to meet tougher training requirements.

To help offset these issues, firefighters from Redding’s three fire departments discussed possible strategies at Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting to help boost the number of volunteers.

“Any little bit helps,” West Redding Chief Glenn Johnson said.

Redding isn’t alone with trying to solve the volunteer puzzle.

“It’s a discussion many towns are having — struggling to keep volunteers,” First Selectman Julia Pemberton said.

About 83 percent of Connecticut’s nearly 27,000 firefighters are volunteers, according to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

Georgetown has about 25 active members, West Redding has about 20 core members — and both have about twice as many members on the rolls, officials said. Many of these volunteer firefighters can’t respond to calls or attend meetings because they are older or are away at college.

Redding Fire and EMS Company No. 1 have 25 strong members, 45 active members and about 65 to 70 people on their roster.

Most of the volunteers are recruited through Joel Barlow High School’s EMT class, social media accounts and community events.

The departments hope to attract more volunteers by expanding their recruitment efforts and offering more incentives.

Some of the incentives being considered are free passes to the town’s parks and dump, as well as allowing town employees who volunteer to leave work to respond to calls.

Johnson said there are five employees who are also volunteers, and the town offices wouldn’t shut down if they left.

Other proposals are built on existing incentives in other towns.

The selectmen said they would pursue the possibility of incorporating the departments’ health and life insurance plans into the town’s plan.

Weston, for example, allows firefighters to participate in the town’s health plan. The town also purchases the firefighting vehicles except for the ambulances. In total, Weston spends about $1.3 million on the firefighters, which includes the 50 firefighters using the town’s health insurance, Pemberton said.

Some incentives are already in place and awarded based on criteria set by each department, including the number of meetings, training exercises and calls volunteers respond to or attend. The proposed incentives would be worked into the existing criteria, if offered.

Many towns, including Redding, already offer a tax abatement under state law.

Redding uses a tiered structure that yields $500, $750 and $1000 based on a point system decided by each fire department. One suggestion Monday night was to offer a lower starting point to attract more volunteers.

Volunteers don’t get to use the full value because the abatement is taxed as income by the IRS, Pemberton said.

Pemberton said she and other municipal leaders are considering lobbying the General Assembly to increase the maximum amount above $1,000.

Johnson said the increase would help a lot, especially because it is so expensive to live in Fairfield County. He said many of his volunteers work two jobs to be able to live in town.

The firefighters also said it was hard to find affordable places to live in town, especially for younger members. They asked the town to create an easily accessible list the departments can use to locate apartments.

Bennett Pardee, of Redding Fire and EMS Company No. 1, said many of the younger members aren’t able to use the tax abatement because they don’t own homes.

Instead, they try to give the tax break for cars.

Members who live in other towns can’t receive the abatement. Bethel, Trumbull and other towns address this by offering checks to volunteers from other towns.

Johnson said many of West Redding’s members live in Bethel, Danbury and Easton.

“We certainly appreciate those who do it,” Johnson said. “They do it because they enjoy volunteering and might not be able to do it in the community they live in if there is a paid service like our friends in Danbury."

Pemberton said the cost of the incentives to the town don’t come close to having to switch to a paid fire service.

Two paid EMS crews already work in town to cover the medical calls during the day when most volunteers are at work. The paid crew is usually made up of people who are also volunteers.

“So far, we haven’t had to take the step of hiring people outside of the town, but we keep that avenue open," Pardee said. kkoerting@newstimes.com

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