Small Towns Roll the Dice When Fire Breaks Out

SPENCER, Mass. (AP) -- When a fire breaks out in this small central Massachusetts town, Fire Chief Robert P. Parsons knows he can count on his on-call firefighters. How many he can count on, however, is another question.

In Spencer, as in many other towns across the state with on-call firefighters who work day jobs, the number of firefighters who can respond to daytime alarms -- particularly if it's not clear that the alarm is a full-blown fire -- is often very small.

In Spencer, it's become difficult to find enough firefighters to repond to non-fires or calls that turn out to be false alarms.

``We are an active department, with about 305 calls for the year so far, and we are going (on calls) quite a bit,'' Parsons told the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

The number of firefighters responding to such calls is often low ``because they (firefighters) cannot leave work readily or their employers only allow them to leave if it's a full-blown fire,'' he said.

In addition, he said, Spencer has become a bedroom community, where many people work out of town, further reducing the pool of available personnel.

``It's a growing issue throughout the country with volunteer and call firefighters,'' he said. Several other Worcester County fire chiefs confirmed that daytime response is a major problem in their communities, too.

Jonathan Plante, a regional vice president of the Massachusetts Call-Volunteer Firefighters Association, told the newspaper that the situation in Worcester County mirrors conditions in most parts of the state.

``It's a gamble,'' said Barre Fire Chief Joseph A. Rogowski, that town's only full-time firefighter. ``Every time the alarm comes in, you wonder if you are going to have enough people show up to do the job.''

Voters in some communities have approved increased funding to hire full-time paid firefighters to cover daytime shifts, but that is the exception and not the rule, according to Plante, a 15-year veteran of the Leicester Fire Department.

Volunteer or on-call fire departments are likely to stay the way most communities in the state manage their fire service, Plante said. These systems provide good fire protection at a cost taxpayers are willing to pay, he said.

``I can always provide the level of service people are willing to pay for,'' Chief Rogowski said. ``If they want a fire truck and five men right at their door, I can provide that, but it comes at a price.''

While most fire chiefs were concerned about daytime response, Chief Michael Gauthier of Grafton said his department hasn't had to face the issue.

``I have a pretty good response during the day. It's due to a lot of support from town businesses that allow our firefighters to respond during the day,'' he said.

``They (the businesses) look at it as a community service, and it saves them money in the long run on taxes,'' he said, because the town is able to maintain an on-call, rather than full-time, department.

Chief Gauthier said other fire chiefs were amazed at the situation in Grafton.

``Everybody looks at me and says, `I don't know how you do it, but keep up the good work,''' he said.