Saying they need to improve recruitment and retention, leaders from New Canaan Fire Co. No. 1 and New Canaan Emergency Medical Services are asking the town to offer members incentives such as tax abatement, Waveny Pool membership and use of the Transfer Station.
Surrounding towns already offer plusses such as property tax relief, pool passes and fuel reimbursement to volunteer emergency responders, according to New Canaan Fire Co. Assistant Chief Russ Kimes and New Canaan EMS Capt. Phil Sheibley.
The volunteer ranks of their organizations have declined, as they have elsewhere, and now stand at record or near-record lows, Kimes and Sheibley told members of the Town Council at their March 24 meeting.
“We need to make corrective actions now in order to make sure our volunteer organizations exist in five, 10, 20 years,” Kimes said at the meeting, held via videoconference. “In particular, as we have attrition of our senior members, we are not filling those ranks in with junior members who can become officers or chiefs or captains ourselves.”
They’re seeking an ordinance enabled by state law that would see volunteer EMTs and firefighters qualify for a $1,500 tax abatement—a benefit that would only serve members who reside in New Canaan—as well as access to some town facilities, such as the pool, Transfer Station, tennis courts and parking lot at the train station. In addition, the volunteers would have access to the town’s group health insurance plans (paid for by the volunteers themselves).
Those are the types of incentives already made available to those who volunteer for fire and EMS in towns such as Darien, Wilton, Greenwich, Weston and Ridgefield, as well as Vista and Pound Ridge, N.Y., Sheibley said.
“We are absolutely a standout in not having this in place versus the surrounding towns,” he said.
The matter now sits with the Town Council Bylaws and Ordinance Committee. Its co-chair, Steve Karl, said he wanted input and support from the Board of Finance prior to drafting a proposed ordinance for vote by the full Town Council. Councilman Sven Englund, a member of the Committee, said he hoped to have the ordnance in place by July 1.
In all, if every volunteer availed herself or himself of the offerings, the total value of the tax abatement would come to about $66,000, Kimes said. (The Fire Company is composed of 16 residents and 11 nonresidents, the EMS 28 residents and 11 nonresidents.)
“As of right now there are no incentives for recruitment and retention in the town, except I think we have a $5,000 budget item which we use for recruitment,” he said.
Councilmen asked how many more volunteers fire and EMS are seeking to recruit (as many as possible, fire has 37 now and ideally would have closer to 50 members; EMS has 39 riding members now and ideally would have 50), what is the fire service’s attrition rate (fire loses half of probationary members in the first year and three-quarters by the five-year mark), who pays for the volunteers’ training (fire volunteers pay about $1,000 out of pocket for the certification exam, and they’re reimbursed if they pass; similarly EMS volunteers are reimbursed after one year of activity with the service), whether the proposal would work similarity to an established tax abatement program for New Canaan seniors and disabled individuals (yes) and whether EMS personnel have adequate protective equipment during the COVID-19 outbreak (yes and they wouldn’t be dispatched otherwise).
Sheibley said, “To our mind—I think to everyone’s mind, if you think about this—there are some major benefits to having these volunteer organizations beyond what you would have if you switched to a paid workforce.”
Those include additional resources on-call, more emergency responders among residents and more goodwill within the community, he said.
Kimes said, “Particularly with fire, it is very important in an actual taking a structure fire as an example to have large quantities of people there very quickly.”
He added, “Those first five, 10 minutes have a tremendous impact on the outcome of an incident. And there is a big difference between having someone who lives in town, drives to the firehouse and grabs the next house out the door or responds directly to the scene, starts talking to the homeowner to see if anyone is inside, that is why having volunteers in town is so incredibly important.”
Councilman Mike Mauro asked whether the agencies were seeing any effects from a lack of volunteers amid the COVID-19 emergency.
Sheibley said four members took medical leave, either because they had underlying medical conditions themselves or because their own children were medically vulnerable.
“Other than that, everyone else continued to jump in and do this, obviously with some additional risk they are taking on themselves,” Sheibley said.
Karl thanked Kimes, Sheibley and all members of the volunteer fire and EMS for their dedicated, important and courageous work.
“We should really just say ‘thank you’ for everything you are doing right now,” he said. “Those guys are the first ones through the door. Thank you for everything you are doing right now. It is incredible what’s going on out there.”