BY STEVEN JUPITER
PITTSFORD—A hundred years ago, the building that now houses the Vermont Police and Fire Academies was a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, who came to the facility for the sunshine and fresh air that were once thought to help cure the disease. In fact, the building was constructed to let in as much light and air as possible, even to the point where patients begged their families to send blankets and warm clothing.
Today, however, the sleeping porches have been enclosed, and the east wing of the building is a brand-new dormitory for Fire Academy trainees. “We have trainees from all over Vermont,” said Michael Skaza, the Academy’s Training Program Coordinator. “We’re trying to make training as accessible as possible. When you have people coming to Pittsford from the Northeast Kingdom, you can’t ask them to drive 3 hours, be in class for 8 hours, then drive 3 hours back. The new dorm will help make training easier.”
The new dormitory occupies what had been office space and is designed to accommodate 24 trainees in bright, clean rooms with furniture by Brandon’s New England Woodcraft. VMS Construction of Rutland carried out the renovation itself.
In addition to the double-occupancy dorm rooms, there are spaces for dining and socializing. “The goal was to provide common space for students to network outside of class,” said Skaza. When the dining hall is closed on the weekend, food is often brought in from Kamuda’s, Keith’s, and the Brandon House of Pizza.
All the work was covered by a $2,000,000 grant from the Vermont Legislature. It’s hoped that the new facility will increase the number of people who train to be firefighters. Training at the Academy is at no cost to the trainees; funding for the training programs comes from a small assessment levied on homeowner’s insurance policies in Vermont.
“Recruitment and retention have been issues for quite some time,” said Skaza, echoing a sentiment voiced by Brandon’s emergency services. “Volunteer agencies have had staffing problems for a while but now we’re starting to see it creep into career agencies. Society puts so much value on free time now. People feel like they have to choose between volunteering and going to their kids’ baseball games.”
“You’d be hard pressed to find a service in Vermont that isn’t looking for help. You used to have waiting lists of people wanting to volunteer, but not anymore. Some regions are struggling more than others. Rutland County could be better,” said Skaza, who is also Chief of the West Rutland Fire Department.
Skaza also pointed out that some municipalities have evolved from volunteer services to full-time paid career agencies as they attempt to resolve their staffing issues. “Towns like Williston, Killington, and Woodstock have the tax base to make that transition. And a lot of people who move to those towns from out of state expect to have 24/7 service and are willing to pay for it. But smaller towns still have to rely on volunteers,” he said.
“The first step for anyone interested in getting trained is to associate themselves with a local fire department,” he continued. “That department will set them up with gear and insurance and then send them to us. If a department can hook them in, we can get them trained.”
The COVID-19 pandemic altered how the Academy delivers training, forcing it to rely heavily on technology. Now that restrictions are easing, the Academy plans to continue offering hybrid live/online classes. “We’re seeing good enrollment now. The hybrid class is very popular. Students in that class attend a virtual session every week and come to campus nine times to practice hands-on skills. There’s less travel, less time away from home,” said Skaza.
The new dormitory will also benefit the local economy, bringing more trainees to Pittsford. “We try to be good neighbors. We have over 1,000 students per year. They definitely go to local stores and restaurants. And our support staff is all local hires. The Academy definitely helps boost the town,” said Skaza.
“We’re trying to knock down as many barriers to service as possible,” he continued. The bulk of our training is on the road, at local departments. But this new dormitory makes it even easier for people to commit to our training programs. If travel is no longer an issue, we hope we’ll see more people signing up.”