GOSHEN - There was a time when Fire Capt. Stephen H. Mollison of Goshen remembers going into a burning building with little more than his street clothes and a handful of courage.
'In the beginning we didn't have jackets, or boots or equipment we have today,' said Mollison, 60, a third-generation volunteer firefighter. 'I always thought before I went in, it was tough, the way we're doing things.'
Goshen - along with Shutesbury, Leverett and Worthington and other volunteer fire departments in the area - is much better equipped now. These towns have also enjoyed some growth in the last 10 years. However, though strong backs and talent have flowed into the towns, interest in joining a volunteer firefighting team has waned.
And the effect of the shortage can be disastrous: Even blazes close to fire stations can take up to 10 minutes to get a crew roused and ready on scene - well beyond the six-minute national standard.
'It's hard for young people to commit,' Mollison, who joined the department when he was 16, said of the shortage. Goshen now has about 17 active members, when for good coverage there should be at least 25. 'I can't blame them with the way the economy is,' Mollison said. 'There is a lot of training and they don't have a lot of time. After working a 10- to 12-hour day, it's hard to pick up and do something late at night.'
The same problem is playing out across the country.
Approximately 73 percent of 1,136,650 U.S. firefighters are volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association. But the number of fire volunteers since 1984 has declined by 8 percent with no sign of a surge in the future.
In Goshen, the fire department positioned a board on Route 9 in front of the station. The message it carried: Help wanted.
'What we are trying to get across is that we desperately need volunteers,' said Goshen Fire Chief Sue Labrie. 'We are competing for people's time along with their work and kid's baseball team. But it's a job that's got to be done.'
Kimberly Ettinger, spokeswoman for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), said time demands are the most significant factor in the decline of volunteer firefighters. Younger people are commuting longer to work or leaving the community for a home near urban centers, she said.
The amount of emergency response requirements since 9/11 has also increased the amount of federal and state-mandated professional training.
'It takes a lot of time to get that training, and we have to respect what the requirements are,' Ettinger said.
Even when younger volunteers are recruited, they tend not to stay - costing the towns about $1,500 in customized personal gear for each lost volunteer.
Also, with expanded roles comes increased call volume for EMS, hazmat and technical rescue. Abuse of emergency services by the public was also cited by the NVFC as a root cause for retention and recruitment problems.
And though volunteers are better equipped and more trained than in years past, the job continues to be a dangerous proposition. In 2006, 77 of the 106 firefighters who died in the line of duty were volunteers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
In 1999, volunteer Deputy Fire Chief John E. Murphy, 61, of Russell, died of a heart attack after fighting a wildfire for four hours. And in 2003, volunteer firefighter Martin H. McNamara V, 31, died of soot and smoke inhalation when he became trapped in the basement of a 21/2-story building fire in Lancaster.
'It's not for everyone; it's a tough job,' said Labrie.
Shutesbury Fire Chief Walter Tibbetts said that though the position is open to anyone, a six-page application, background check, physical and reference check have to clear before volunteers are welcomed aboard.
He added that applicants are nixed if they are drawn to the gig for the wrong reasons. 'We want people dedicated to the town. We are going into people's houses, so we have to be trustworthy. We are a small department. You have to trust your life to your crew, and they have to trust you.'
Combating the shortage
Despite the challenges, department officials continue recruiting efforts and try to remain optimistic about the future.
'I think it will turn around,' Mollison said. 'We've had young people come and go. But some young people stay with us.'
Dustin M. Culver, 20, has been serving on the Goshen Fire Department since he was 17 and was recently promoted to lieutenant.
'I got a letter in the mail that the town was looking for volunteer firefighters,' Culver said. 'I never thought it was something I would do.'
Culver said he started attending the weekly Tuesday night trainings out of curiosity but ended up liking the work so much he made it a career choice.
In addition to volunteering, he works for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation in forest fire control.
'I found out that this was the path I wanted to go down,' he said.
Like many small communities, Leverett pays volunteers a stipend of $14.85 an hour for time spent on training or responding to emergencies. And after a recent special Town Meeting vote of approval, it became the only department in the commonwealth to offer a retirement benefit - however humble - to those who serve.
The Length of Service Awards Program, funded mainly through a federal grant, will provide a $150 a month benefit at age 65 to firefighters who have served a minimum of 20 years.
'It's not much, but we are trying to do something to get the kids interested,' said John Mourzzi, Leverett fire chief.
Mourzzi has 12 regular volunteers serving a community of about 830 households. They respond to 120 to 130 calls a year.
Shutesbury has a crew of about seven though he needs 15 firefighters, said Tibbetts, the town's chief.
'We are trying to just somehow invoke an interest in people,' Tibbetts said.
Tibbetts said his department made poster boards with photos of the training they've been doing. They announce openings at town meetings and put notices in the town newsletter. And at Celebrate Shutesbury in September, the department brought equipment and talked with kids about the job.
'Nothing is going to happen till they walk in the door,' Tibbetts said of the recruitment efforts. 'They have to come in and say, 'Yes, I'm interested. I want to join.'
Mutual aid among the towns is also vital to balancing shrinking volunteer departments, officials say. And departments often engage in shared training and attend conferences together.
For Labrie, recruitment is about getting the message out about the rewards of volunteering. She joined the Goshen team in 1989 after the last fire chief visited her house for an inspection.
'They bring you in and make you feel welcome,' she said of her initial training. 'I enjoyed it. It just clicked.'
Culver said he is aware of the danger of the profession, but loves being able to give back to his community.
'You are helping people at the worst time in their lives,' he said. 'It's very rewarding in ways that I didn't even imagine. There is a satisfaction from it.'
Mollison said he also feels satisfaction from helping Goshen neighbors who are in trouble. But in the end, the job has to be done regardless, he said. 'You do the best you can with what you got and go from there.'