BERLIN — Firefighters will now be compensated for covering shifts at the Berlin Fair and providing fire watches in buildings with malfunctioning alarm systems, with the approval of an expansion of the town’s paid on-call program.
Berlin Fire Administrator James Simons said the changes will help Berlin’s four volunteer fire companies continue to retain enough volunteers for harder to staff calls, as departments in surrounding towns have increasingly turned to hiring full-time firefighters. The changes were approved by the Town Council during its Sept. 3 meeting.
"When we originally put this in, in 2011, we were a leader - we were at the top of the market. Now the problem is we're in the medium to the low end of the market. If we go to our surrounding towns they're all paying higher than us at this point," he said. He noted Cromwell recently converted to a paid department and offers per diem shifts, leaving Newington as the only municipality bordering Berlin with a volunteer fire department.
"Times do change, so I think we know where we'll ultimately have to go to protect the town," Mayor Mark Kaczynski said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The paid on-call program awards firefighters points based on the number and type of calls they respond to, with each point being worth $10. Fires and rescues earn a responder one point, while calls like hazardous materials incidents, electrical emergency or mutual aid for other departments are worth two points. The counterintuitive fact of crashes without injuries and residents locked out of their homes paying less than crashes with injuries and structure fires stems from less volunteers regularly responding to more routine calls, Simons said.
The Board of Chiefs approved the modifications to the paid on-call program, which was adopted in 2011 and has not been revised since, at its August 21 meeting. Simons said his department set aside $5,000 in their budget this year in anticipation of the added expense.
Firefighters covering fireworks and fire watches, including for the Berlin Fair, were not compensated before the revisions and will now be awarded six points. A fire watch is when a firefighter is stationed at a building - typically apartments or condos - where there is a lapse in the functioning of the fire alarm system or one is not installed.
Kensington Fire-Rescue Chief Jeff Pajor said compensating firefighters for their work at the annual fair is key. The town maintains four firefighters, split between two apparatus, and one commander at the fair, where they help out when police officers are busy with other matters.
“Anything extra that we can provide to the members when they come out and volunteer, especially at the fair ... it’s another thank you,” Pajor said. “Will guys come down without being paid? Of course, they’ve done it for years.”