Congratulations to the Gazette for its Dec. 20 editorial regarding the difficulty of recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. I hope it provokes a long and fruitful discussion of a very serious problem. Some towns live in a dream world, thinking all is well as "they" don't have a problem, failing to see that the membership is getting grayer. Other towns see the situation and have at least had very preliminary talks on the subject.
Our mutual aid works rather well, excepting many vehicles are on the road. We have learned to train together and work with each other. It's no longer "wait until it's out of control, then call for help," but rather getting as many as are available to begin mitigation. Many of the local departments now do this as a standard procedure. That is a big change from my early days.
At one time we had in place the natural vehicle to move the problem forward, that being the County of Hampshire. As more and more towns dropped out of membership, citing cost factors, strengths were lost. Public safety is not free. The tragedy of 9/11 made this clear. To stay diligent costs money and we need to stay proactive, not reactive.
Fortunately there exists a model to help solve the problem cited by the Gazette's editorial. Highland Ambulance came about when the Goshen, Cummington and Ashfield ambulance services could no longer provide dependable service solely done by volunteers. Fortunately, the directors of these services, two of whom were fire chiefs and the other a deputy fire chief, came to the quick decision something had to be done. They developed a plan and took it to the six towns involved. The select boards of these towns were receptive to this plan and carried it to their citizens. Even though this would mean a new and increased budget item it carried through the Town Meetings. One of the main provisions of making up a governing board was to have it run by business people who volunteered their services. Today the ambulance usually responds within two minutes.
Without these three directors willingly giving up their "turf," this change would not have happened. The main obstacle to the fire service has always been tradition. Time has come for a change.
This change does not have to be severe. It can come about by departments getting together and coming up with a scheduling plan. This takes a little more dedication but can also free up constant service. With the changes I have seen in my lifetime I know these departments are capable of coming up with a solution.
Anthony Thomas Jr. lives in Goshen, where he serves as town moderator.