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A Possible Unintended Consequence Of COVID-19: More Volunteer Firefighters On Hand

Firefighter gear on a table at a volunteer fair in Georgia, as a local volunteer firefighter explains the job.
Airman 1st Class Ceaira Tinsley
/
U.S. Air Force
Firefighter gear on a table at a volunteer fair in Georgia, as a local volunteer firefighter explains the job.

For a number of years, small communities across Massachusetts have been struggling to staff their volunteer fire departments. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs that's changing in Franklin County.

Herb Guyette is personally facing a volunteer void. He's the fire chief in Buckland, Massachusetts, a town of fewer than 2,000 residents.

"If we could recruit more, we definitely would," Guyette said. "It's just the eligible or willing base is not stepping forward as much as we would like. And that's, you know, nationally."

Last year, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a new low, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

"If you have eight on the roster, and if you're lucky, four of them show up, then you still have to deal with mutual aid," Guyette said.

And that was what happened for a recent structure fire in his town. Nearby communities sent volunteer crews to assist fighting a house fire.

Guyette said structure fires are "kind of few and far between, so if people can leave work, they do."

One of the local fire departments that showed up to help was from neighboring Colrain, a town with fewer residents than Buckland, at last count — but a relatively strong roster of volunteers.

Still, Colrain Fire Chief Nick Anzuoni said even he was surprised by the turnout for the structure fire the other day.

"There's at least three of four people who wouldn't have been there," Anzuoni said. "They normally would have been away at their job."  

A number of those firefighters showed up because they were out of work — as a lot of businesses have closed in the wake of the coronavirus.

"One person is just working every other day now. It just happened to be his off day," Anzuoni said. "If there is an upside, I'll take it."

While those Colrain firefighters have upheavals with their employment status — like so many other people right now — the extra time might mean more people on hand for emergency calls.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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