WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Fire District needs to work on the message it conveys to potential recruits and consider new models for service to make it a more attractive option for residents.
That was part of the message the Prudential Committee received last week from the community advisory committee the committee established last year.
Jeffrey Thomas, who chairs the advisory group, dropped by the Prudential Committee''s first in-person meeting since before the pandemic to share some input from his group.
Recruitment of new firefighters has long been a concern for the Prudential Committee, which oversees the district, and Thomas came with suggestions for concrete steps the committee could take to bolster its ranks.
"One thing we felt was important was to increase the awareness that once volunteers are trained, they are compensated for their hours and service," Thomas said. "A lot of people hear ''volunteer'' and assume it's an uncompensated position. That's not true."
Other than the chief, the one full-time position in the department, other firefighters are on-call paid volunteers who receive an hourly rate for their time responding to calls.
Thomas said the expectation that firefighters are available on a full-time basis can be off-putting to potential recruits, citing the input of one community member he talked to about the department.
"He works a full-time job and his wife works a full-time job," Thomas said. "He might be interested in volunteering, but when he hears the chief talking about what's involved — 24/7 availability, 12 months a year — for him, he said he isn't sure he could do that.
"We understand that the most important volunteers are fully trained, fully available volunteers. We understand that. But we also think there are probably a number of people who would consider volunteering if it was somewhat less of a commitment. Maybe it's six months out of the year or being trained to do things outside the fire but still having value or maybe some other models. We're not experts, but maybe creating other ways for people to volunteer might be a way to get more people involved."
The advisory committee also recommended that the fire district prioritize recruiting women in an effort to grow diversity in its ranks and raise visibility of the need for firefighters.
"We're not sure a lot of people in the community understand the need," Thomas said.
The advisory committee also suggested that the district find more creative ways to catch the interest of potential firefighters — anything from "job fair" type events at the station to competitive fitness tests.
"Maybe you could do some physical obstacle course-type things," he said. "I think there's a physical aptitude tests some fire departments run where people can come and, basically, try out for the fire department. There are a lot of athletic, competitive people in town, and they might respond to that."
In the course of last week's discussion with the Prudential Committee, another idea that arose was developing a junior firefighter program that might spark more interest in advancing to full membership in the department. Prudential Committee Chair Richard Reynolds suggested that the district put together a working group to explore what such a program might look like.
In other business on Tuesday, district treasurer Corydon Thurston informed the committee that the request for design services developed by the district's building committee had been posted on state's central register with a due date of June 30. Reynolds reported that the district had submitted an application to a federal grant program for up to $400,000 to help support the building project. And David Moresi again raised the issue of whether the Fire Department should be dispatched more to respond to accidents in town.
"I've been approached by members of the EMS," Moresi said. "They are rather upset at some of the recent accidents that have occurred and the lack of Fire Department response.
"As far as I understand it, this is the only department in Berkshire County that does not respond to accidents most of the time. This is something that needs to be addressed."
Moresi pointed to a recent accident involving a utility pole that could have involved live wires.
Chief Craig Pedercini said he shared Moresi's concern and that the issue of getting calls from the dispatcher has been going on for a number of years. He said he would reach out to the director of Northern Berkshire EMS about the issue.