NORTH STONINGTON — Increased traffic flow, an uptick in the number of summer visitors and volunteer availability during weekday shifts have left leaders at the North Stonington Volunteer Fire Company with a difficult balancing act to assure they are able to continue to meet the community’s growing needs.
After years of working to find a viable long-term solution, help is on the way.
Residents in the community voted by a 3-1 margin at a town meeting with approximately 45 people this week to approve a $165,000 expenditure for the fire department that will be used to fund a per diem firefighter position. The funding will come from the town’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act and will be distributed evenly over a three-year period.
“This will help to meet a need between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, which is a period where we’ve had less volunteers available. This helps make sure there are no gaps in our coverage,” said Fire Chief Charles Steinhart V.
The addition of the per diem role will now allow the department to keep two per diem firefighters during those hours, Steinhart said. The department will begin utilizing the two per diem firefighter system each weekday beginning Sept. 1, with the aid of five firefighters who already split the other per diem shifts. The department is also seeking additional applicants to help assure there will be no scheduling issues.
First Selectman Michael Urgo said Wednesday that the measure is one officials have sought for several years, but has been kicked down the road due to budgetary constraints and more immediate needs including the recent pandemic.
He said the town has largely been supportive of the concept, something that has been seen by those expressing opposition during the 2021-22 budget cycle, and those previously vocal against at meetings expressed concern with both the short- and long-term cost or indicated that they believed the money could be better used elsewhere right now.
“This was a really important need for the fire company,” said Urgo, who noted that the department has been able to meet needs despite some significant manpower challenges at times. “We have been trying to find a way to address this for several years now, and this solution will allow us to move forward and improve response times and firefighter availability.”
For the fire company, Steinhart said the role will make an immediate impact on daytime response times and responder availability. With the pandemic causing many in the region to seek outdoor options — use of nature-based locations in town has increased exponentially, officials said — and increases in summer traffic flow along Route 2 by tourists and beachgoers in recent years, he said call volume has increased year-over-year over the course of the past decade.
The department also now aids in medical responses, assisting members of the North Stonington Ambulance Association, which has only further increased the need for additional manpower.
The agency has continued to meet expected response times, but Steinhart admits that there have been moments where available volunteers needed to scramble a bit to make it happen.
“In a town such as ours, many of our volunteers work in other communities during the day. We don’t have all that many businesses, and in some cases those who are working in town are in a position where they may not be able to just step away at a moment’s notice,” he explained. “This is that stop gap; with two per diem positions we are able to make sure there are always two people ready to go.”
Urgo said that at the end of the three years, the town would need to absorb the cost in its annual budget in order to keep the position funded. Officials in earlier meetings had begun conversations to determine ways to plan ahead in an effort to reduce any future impact on taxpayers as well.
Steinhart said he believes the two positions should help the town for years to come and said this week he does not expect to have to make a request for a third per diem anytime in the near future.
He said the department would need to continue to be aggressive in recruiting new volunteer members, however, and encouraged anyone interested to reach out. Steinhart said there may be roles volunteers can play even if they are uncomfortable responding to calls.
“We are a 99% volunteer department, and it is our volunteers that have helped to meet the needs,” he said. “It’s a big part of who we are.”