Various organizations around the country have been reporting a shortage of people willing to contribute their time to community service, but the problem is proving particularly serious for volunteer fire departments.
A recent article in the Gazette highlighted the problems being experienced by volunteer fire departments serving smaller communities around the Pioneer Valley. Their inability to recruit volunteers and fill their ranks is having serious ramifications, including an increase in response times for some departments.
In Goshen, for example, it can take the volunteer department up to 10 minutes to fully respond to a fire, even those that are nearby, according to Fire Capt. Stephen Mollison. That's well above the six-minute national standard for response time.
Mollison's department currently has about 17 volunteers, but he estimates it needs 25 to be able to respond most effectively.
This is a trend that has been plaguing volunteer fire departments across the U.S. It's estimated that 73 percent of the country's 1,136,650 firefighters are volunteers. Their ranks have declined by 8 percent since 1984.
There are a number of reasons cited for the shortage of volunteers: Many people are working longer hours at their jobs and don't have as much free time to contribute to their community; many young people end up leaving rural areas to live near urban centers; and, of course, the work can be dangerous.
The only positive trend in this mix is the fact that, since the 2001 terror attacks, more money has become available to provide training to emergency responders. However, it's still expensive for small communities to provide their own training, as well as equipment, to volunteer firefighters.
The idea of individual communities having a volunteer fire department is something of a New England tradition. The question now, however, is whether smaller communities in the Pioneer Valley have outgrown that tradition.
In our opinion, it would be useful to explore the concept of regionalizing fire service, perhaps having smaller communities team up with one of the larger cities or towns nearby. This concept has worked well for a variety of government services. Amherst, for example, currently provides ambulance service to a number of nearby communities, including Leverett, Shutesbury, Pelham and Hadley.
It would also be worth exploring whether there are state or federal grants that could be used to expand volunteer recruiting efforts and also help pay for training.
In addition, there might be ways of teaming with the new Center for Community Engagement at UMass, and possibly the ACT Community Service Center. Both organizations are part of an effort to generate more interest in volunteerism and connect people to community service opportunities.
The most important thing at this point is to begin a discussion of how adequate fire service can be provided to the Valley's small rural communities. All communities have a common interest - the public's safety - in finding a solution.