Vt. town debates on-call vs. full-time

By Lisa Rathke
Associated Press Writer / September 17, 2010

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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt.—A push to eliminate the 10-member full-time fire department and rely on on-call firefighters instead is raising hackles in a northern Vermont town that has had a professional fire department for nearly a century.

It's about money, according to Nancy Cohen, 67, author of a petition circulating around St. Johnsbury.

"People feel that their tax dollars in this economy are being frittered away and not spent cautiously by the department," she said Friday, after presenting the more than 250 signatures to the town clerk to get the proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot. The Select Board has the final say once the signatures are verified.

Proponents of eliminating the full-time fire department -- which has an annual budget of $945,920 -- complain about firefighters responding to medical emergency calls that they think EMTs should handle on their own. And they see how much less neighboring communities are paying to maintain on-call or volunteer departments. Lyndon, for example, has a budget of $150,000 to pay for a part-time chief and 33 on-call firefighters who only get paid when they respond to a call.

But others want it to stay put.

"I'm willing to pay the money," said William Goff, 65, recalling a fire last summer that ripped through an entire historic block. "You've got to have them there."

Communities around the country are cutting services including police and fire departments to balance their budgets in the weak economy, according to a National League of Cities survey.

"Sixty-three percent of cities surveyed said they were making personnel cuts in the public safety arena, which was the highest of the categories on the list," said Chris Hoene, the league's director of research and innovation.

Typically, local governments try to protect public safety budgets from downturns, he said.

"What you're seeing happening here is they're having to make big cuts and so those cuts are having to occur in areas that they typically try to protect," he said.

Some positions may go unfilled after a retirement.

Others -- like in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Los Angeles -- may have rotating departments, open on different days, said Lori Moore-Merrell of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

"So instead of cutting their crew sizes they will protect that and close down stations in one form of the other," she said.

But they aren't taking as drastic a step as some in St. Johnsbury would like to do, said Matt Vinci, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, who said the group is adamantly opposed to any change in service in St. Johnsbury.

"This is what we believe is an ill-informed, knee-jerk reaction," he said.

"We feel it's dangerous, it puts the public at risk and it puts our firefighters at risk," he said. "A fire doubles in size every minute that it goes unsupressed. And individuals who are in cardiac arrest have a 10 percent less chance of survival for every minute they go without CPR and defibrillation so seconds count."

Fifteen Vermont towns have full-time departments, each made up of about 350 individual firefighters, Vinci said. The professional departments tend to be in larger population areas, like Burlington, Barre, Rutland and Williston.

The state -- which is largely rural -- has more than 6,000 volunteers, said Tim Girard, president of the Vermont State Firefighters Association.

The St. Johnsbury referendum would keep on a full-time chief and assistant chief with an on-call force of firefighters.

"This isn't the end all and be all of safety," Cohen said of the department. "Call departments and volunteer departments do a very good job across the state."

The difference is response time and experience and training, said St. Johnsbury Chief Troy Ruggles.

"My concern is what will be the cost if we're not there," he said.

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