WALLINGFORD — The smallest volunteer fire company in town has the largest membership, acting Fire Chief Richard Heidgerd said Friday while sitting in the training room at Engine Company 8, otherwise known as the East Wallingford Volunteer Fire Department.
Located on Kondracki Lane, the 1,300-square-foot station has 38 members and houses an engine, pumper, tanker and aerial truck. Besides a garage, the company has living quarters that include a small kitchen, training room, office and recreation room. The station is “small by anyone’s standards,” Heidgerd said.
A project to expand the station’s living quarters was announced as part of Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s proposed $151.7 million budget for 2014-15. Dickinson is requesting the Town Council appropriate $150,000 from the town’s 2012-13 budget surplus to fund the project. Heidgerd said the project is small scale, and would include a 1,100-square-foot addition which would be used for meeting space and offices.
The expansion would allow the station’s interior to be reconfigured to create more space, said William Celata, the station’s chief. There are two other volunteer companies in town, both with smaller membership than Engine 8. One station is in Yalesville on Hope Hill Road. The other is on Barnes Road, but the town plans to build a new station on North Farms Road to replace it.
Engine 8 has a recreation room with a television and several sofas closely packed together. In the same room, there are four bunk beds hidden behind black sheets. The beds were donated by Choate Rosemary Hall last year, Celata said. Prior to the donation, volunteers just slept on chairs, he said. About a year ago, a wall was built to separate the recreation room from the training and meeting room.
Part of the impetus for expanding the station is to encourage more volunteers to spend the night, Heidgerd said.
“That way they can get on the road quicker,” he said. “It’s the more modern method of volunteering.”
Volunteers have been sleeping overnight more often since the bunks were built, Celata said. Reconfiguring the inside of the building with an expansion will “give them a little more elbow room,” Heidgerd said.
There are no shifts when volunteering. Every volunteer receives notification of an emergency and can respond if they are available. It’s not always easy to find enough volunteer responders at any given time, especially at night, Heidgerd said. By having volunteers spend nights at the station, there are guaranteed responders who can get to an incident quicker.
“Response time is critical,” Heidgerd said.
While volunteers are now encouraged to spend some nights at the station, they are not required. But there are incentives, Celata said.
Volunteer firefighters operate on a point system called “length of service,” he said. They must accumulate 100 points per year.
“It’s not easy,” Celata said.
Certain aspects of the job provide different point values. If volunteers accumulate the required 100 points per year, they are eligible for a tax incentive program. After one year, they are eligible for a $250 abatement, Celata said. After five years, they can receive $500, $750 after seven years and $1,000 after 10 years.
A similar system is being used in Cheshire, where Fire Chief Jack Casner is also encouraging his volunteers to work night shifts. In the last 10 years, the town has renovated two of three volunteer stations to establish bunk rooms. Volunteers in Cheshire also operate on a points system, Casner said.
“One of the biggest advantages I see is turnout time,” he said.
Celata and Casner said it’s important to have sleeping quarters so that volunteers can stay overnight during storms. During a large snowstorm, the response time for a volunteer would be hindered if they had to drive to the station.
Meriden Fire Chief Ken Morgan said the South Meriden Volunteer Fire Department also has a program where volunteers are encouraged to stay overnight.
“It does help the response time quite a bit,” Morgan said.
Fire officials in Wallingford, Meriden and Cheshire said they are not considering a stipend for volunteers who work night shifts.
Southington Fire Chief Harold Clark said his department does not offer a program for volunteers to work at night. Volunteers already provide “a huge time commitment,” Clark said. They are more than welcome to spend the night if they choose, “but to schedule it, I’m afraid it would negatively impact their time,” he said.
“We looked into it,” Clark added, “but it didn’t seem like it was something the volunteers were interested in. We have to be very respectful of the volunteers time and quality of life.”