WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. — For Selectman Michael Todd, the biggest problem with the fire department standstill is not the selectboard’s motion to create a municipal department, but that so few town residents understand why there should be a municipal department.
“It’s really difficult to talk about problems like safety, liability, protection, ability or capability without it sounding like you’re putting down the volunteers,” Todd said at Monday’s selectboard meeting. “That isn’t what this discussion is about.”
Todd restated similar concerns at the previous board meeting on June 3, when the selectboard recommended that the town’s two volunteer fire departments, Ascutney and West Weathersfield, collaborate without the selectboard present to figure out how to unify their departments. While not against the idea Todd said the board needed to specify the issues that the departments must address, including how to improve accounting methods, communication, coordinating purchases, and establishing uniform safety and training protocol.
Todd reiterated this need during Monday’s discussion with the fire departments.
“When it comes to what a town wants for service and how we want our departments to come together to provide that service, there are some things on the list that are not open for discussion,” Todd said. “We as a town need to put forward what we want, what those rules are, and the departments need to decide whether they want to operate under those rules or not.”
Todd said that his discussions with residents found that most residents did not understand the actual problems or reasons why the board wants a municipal department. Many residents seemed to believe the problems were just the historical “bickering” between the departments, rather than fundamental issues pertaining to safety, cost and town liability.
These issues were not indictments of the firefighters, Todd said, but systemic problems from the town’s service structure.
The 2016 John Wood Report, a town-commissioned fire services study, found numerous safety concerns within Weathersfield’s system, particularly from having two independently-operating fire stations and volunteers burdened to meet modern regulatory demands.
The report found that each department had different operating procedures, and both departments needed to update or review their operating guides more regularly; members from both associations expressed concerns about getting overtaxed and burnt out; and a need to either train more volunteers for emergency medical technician (EMT) certification or reduce their department’s responses to emergency medical calls.
West Weathersfield Chief Joshua Dauphin said after the meeting that three-fourths of their calls were emergency-medical related.
Dauphin, who supports the board’s vote to go municipal, said that the proposed fire chief would have also been EMT-certified, which both departments often lack when responding to calls.
“Our department usually have one or two EMTs, but they aren’t always available because they have full-time jobs as EMTs,” Dauphin said.
Weathersfield contracts ambulatory services from Golden Cross Ambulance Inc., in Claremont, which is located over four miles outside of town.
Selectman N. John Arrison said that he came to support a municipal department after seeing the “easel drawings going halfway around the [meeting room]” showing safety measures that were not getting met under the current system.
“One of my foremost concerns is the liability of volunteers without the municipality’s umbrella,” Arrison said.
Both fire associations have insurance coverage, and Town Manager Ed Morris said that most work-related injuries would likely be covered under the fire association’s insurance. However, insurance policies for fire departments often have some complicated provisions. The problem with not having a municipal department is that the town currently has less knowledge or say into those liability risks, Morris said. Even though the Ascutney and West Weatherfield departments are independent entities, the town of Weathersfield can still potentially hold liability for injuries sustained by the volunteers.