BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—In our moments of crisis and panic, when we’re desperate for help and even fearing for our lives, we take for granted that a call to 911 will bring assistance. We rely on those services—fire, police, medical—to provide the sense of safety that allows us to sleep at night. But those services are more fragile than we may realize.
At The Brandon Reporter’s request, the leaders of the Brandon Fire Department (BFD) and the Brandon Area Rescue Squad (BARS) met to share their concerns about current staffing levels and their long-term ability to provide adequate service to the Brandon community.
BFD was represented by Chief Tom Kilpeck and Dunmore Hose Company President Kyle Hutchins. BARS was represented by Chief Andy Jackson and Board President Erin Kilpeck. [author’s note: Tom and Erin Kilpeck are married.]
“We’re consistently not sure if we’ll have the numbers,” said BFD Chief Tom Kilpeck, referring to the size of his crew. “We’ve got 23 people on the roster, but we can rely on maybe 15 or 16 of them to actually come out on calls. You really need at least 10 people to show up on any one call. On a weekday, there are often only 5 or 6 people who can leave their jobs to respond.”
“In 2014-15, we were up to 38 people, and probably 30 of them were reliable. We had so many crewmembers, we didn’t even have enough space to store their gear,” added Hutchins, who’s been a member since 2012. “35 on our roster would put us in good shape.”
“We used to be able to have two different trucks out on two different calls at the same time. We don’t have the people for that anymore,” said BFD Chief Kilpeck. “We often have to rely on mutual aid with Pittsford, Middlebury, and Rutland when things get busy.”
“Rescue has 25 to 30 people on the roster right now,” said Erin Kilpeck. “We pay to train people, but they don’t stay. We only have 3 or 4 people who actually live in Brandon.”
“Volunteers move on to paid EMT services,” said BARS Chief Jackson. “You have to be trained and licensed. It’s not like someone can just walk in the door and start going out on calls. They go through all the training and then go where they get paid. We need a constant influx of people, and we’re not getting it. “To cover most all of our calls, we would likely need 40 to 45 people on the roster.”
“By law, we have to respond to every call that comes in. But we can’t leave the station without two licensed people in the ambulance, and one of them has to be a licensed EMT,” Jackson added.
Unlike professional departments in large municipalities, where all members are full-time and paid, BFD and BARS are almost all volunteers. Crewmembers at BFD get compensated at minimum wage for the time spent on a call, including transit to the scene. Members are also paid at minimum wage for 2 hours of departmental training per week.
“It’s probably less than $1,000 per year,” Hutchins said. He estimated that a firefighter could spend up to 400 unpaid hours on all the various training and certifications if they wanted to reach the highest levels. It’s a significant investment of time and energy for those who join these departments.
“[BARS doesn’t] have enough money to pay a 24/7 staff,” said Erin Kilpeck. Unlike BFD, which is financed by the town, BARS is a private nonprofit that relies on an annual appropriation from town residents plus the income from its services, which are billed to and paid mostly by insurance companies.
“We go on 750 calls every year. We’re busy enough to need a full-time crew but not busy enough to pull in enough money to pay for one,” BARS Chief Jackson said.
“Staffing is a national problem,” added Chief Kilpeck. “Fire and Rescue across the U.S. lost 100,000 volunteers over the last 10 years.”
“The burnout rate is high,” said Erin Kilpeck. “The work is stressful. There are so many things we can be sued for.”
“When Brandon lost its manufacturing jobs, like Vermont Tubbs and Nexus, a lot of people moved away, and we lost a lot of volunteers,” said Chief Jackson. “People moving to the area from bigger cities now don’t realize that these services are volunteer here.”
Though they aren’t yet at a point where they feel unable to provide basic coverage for the area, they can see a time approaching when they might be unable to respond to calls without the aid of other towns’ crews.
“Please volunteer,” said Chief Kilpeck. “Not everyone can be a firefighter and run into a burning building, but there are other things people can do to help out, even at the scene. There’s no national standard for firefighters. You don’t need to be licensed.”
BARS Chief Jackson adds, “If you’re at least 21 with a good driving record, we can start training you to drive. And if you want to do more, we can get you that training.”
“No one does this for the money,” said Hutchins. “We do it for the community.”