SOUTHINGTON — The fire department recently put out a call for new volunteers as part of a renewed effort to bring more onto the force. The initiative put forward in the recent Board of Fire Commissioners Recruitment and Retention meeting aims for further community outreach to draw in volunteers.
The department plans on opening booths at job fairs at Southington High School and vocational schools like Platt Technical School in Milford, along with other events around Southington like the Italian-American and Apple Harvest festivals.Officials also aim to put out more targeted advertising through signs, videos, and a new ad to be shown at the Southington Drive-In.
This is to combat the decline in volunteer numbers over the past decade, leaving the department with a pool of 35 volunteers — who aren’t always available on calls.
Volunteers have been an integral component of Southington’s operations with the fire department, especially calls requiring more trucks and personnel.
“We rely heavily on our volunteer staff for emergency and non-emergency response,” said Fire Chief Eric Heath, “The career staff can handle some minor incidents, while they're on duty 24/7. But the significant incidents require the volunteer force to arrive and play significant roles in the operation to mitigate that.”
According to Heath, of the 2,531 calls the department responded to last year, volunteers were mobilized for between 550 to 600 of them. With a slight increase in the number of calls anticipated for this year, Heath emphasized the importance of volunteers.
The more volunteers they have, the better they’re able to mount a response - especially as not all volunteers are available all the time every day like the full-time members of the department.
“Maybe we're getting anywhere between 10 and 15 (volunteers) depending on the call, and sometimes we get less than that. So it's a matter of numbers,” Heath said.
Lower volunteer numbers also pose a greater issue for the department if they’re called out on serious incidents, as mobilizing both of their full-time crews may leave them unable to respond to medical calls if they’re unable to field enough volunteers, requiring them to call other nearby towns for assistance — which takes more time.
“If we have a serious situation, whether it be a working fire, a serious accident, most days we'd have to call mutual aid from an outside town,” Vice Chair of the Board of Fire Commissioners Dave Kanute said. “We have a very different kind of a situation here [in Southington] because we have two major interstates — we have 691 and 84. We spend two-thirds of our assets and people on those things all the time. The amount of people that we have on during the day, if it's a serious scene, and we sent two trucks up on the highway that's our two full-time crews. And if we didn't have the volunteers, we have no coverage for the rest of the town.”
They attribute the smaller volunteer pool to the lack of time that people are able to commit to the role, with members being required to take a three-month training program and other courses in order to serve.
Also with the current state of the economy people are required to work more hours in order to provide for their families, Heath said, limiting the hours people are able to commit their time to respond to calls.
“You look at the firefighter one program, that’s a 160-hour commitment — or three months. It's two nights a week, and most Saturdays in order to get that certification in order to become an interior firefighter, which means you're able to go inside a building, or understructure fire, and do other certain tasks and operations. Plus the calls come in randomly, there's no set time, there's no time from 8 to 5 that emergencies are going to come in,” Heath said.
Despite the time commitment, the department is hopeful to add several new volunteers to its ranks over the next year.
While volunteer firefighters aren’t offered the same compensation as career firefighters, they are afforded several benefits — such as a yearly tax abatement, a pension plan, life insurance, and other benefits outlined on the fire department’s page at JoinSFD.org.
Further details on how to apply are also available on the website, with applications available online or at the fire chief’s office at 310 North Main St.