When a call came in reporting a house fire on Meadow Wood Drive on March 14, North Stonington Fire Rescue Capt. Cody Morgan and Assistant Fire Chief James Tuttle knew they had to switch gears.
Morgan and Tuttle, who was on shift with the North Stonington Ambulance Association until the 11 a.m. fire call came in, immediately called for probationary firefighter Thomas Marsh and junior firefighter Ethan Emery to assist. The group, with only two fire-ready responders (Morgan and the probationary firefighter), set off to fight the blaze while they awaited further help from mutual aid.
"It's not an uncommon response, especially given the challenges we face these days," said Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V. "We are lucky right now to have some members on rotating schedules, but trying to fill daytime shifts has increasingly become a challenge for small town departments in recent years."
Across the region, volunteer fire and ambulance services continue to the mainstay of emergency response, but with the number of volunteers trending downward over the past two decades, departments are finding it harder to fill shifts. One of the biggest challenges is filling spots from 9 to 5 while many of the volunteers are at work.
Whether in more populated areas such as Pawcatuck or Dunn's Corners, or in smaller communities like North Stonington and Charlestown, staffing daytime shifts has become a top priority.
Steinhart, North Stonington Fire Capt. Steve Sadowski and Charlestown Fire Capt. Matt Dowling each said that when it comes to filling shifts in bedroom communities, it's an all hands on deck approach.
"We don't have the Davis-Standard or other business that can help provide coverage during the typical workday," explained Steinhart. "We used to benefit from the farms, but changes in recent years have led to far fewer workers being able to step away from their jobs."
In North Stonington, volunteers cover a 55-square mile area. For some, that means a 20- to 30-minute drive in some cases to get equipment and head to a fire scene, Sadowski said. The more volunteers that are available in different parts of the community, the better the response and the faster firefighters can do their work.
The department has several dozen active firefighters and is able to meet industry safety and response standards, but Steinhart notes that the number has now dwindled down to less than 1 percent of the town's population. Age is also a concern. In North Stonington, the average volunteer now is about 50 years old.
There is less area to cover in Charlestown, but with several beaches, parks and open space, the need for first responders picks up during the summer months. Dowling said the department has about 30 active volunteers — active defined as attending 10% of all calls — with 15 members credited with showing up for over 33% of all calls for service.
Sadowski and Dowling said the departments are certainly able to make ends meet, in part thanks to strong mutual aid partnerships with neighboring communities, but the statistics show a dire need for recruitment.
Dowling said the department has begun to recruit new members through the junior firefighter program — reaching out to Chariho students.
North Stonington has a similar program. Steinhart said this program encourages high school students students to learn about fire services, and many later go on to become full members after turning 18.
Social media is another tool. Over the past year, Dowling said, Charlestown has been working to increase its visibility on outlets such as Facebook. Volunteer firefighter Jared Elwell has taken the reins, Dowling said, and has attracted significant attention for the department.
In North Stonington, the fire department's Facebook page has provided a regular means of communication. The town is also developing a 30-second video to promote the department and recruit new volunteers.
North Stonington First Selectman Michael Urgo said the town has partnered with Aerial Horizons LLC, a media marketing photography/videography business based in Mystic, to professionally produce the video. The service comes at a significant discount over standard rates, Urgo said, and the video is expected to be completed by the end of April. It will be featured on the town and fire department websites and across social media, he said.
"The North Stonington community benefits immensely from the services of our volunteer fire department," Urgo said. "We are the sixth largest town in the state geographically, and this is a very small investment to make for attracting more volunteers."