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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Housing for Firemen

Memorial Day Parade 2009
click to enlarge
Beth Richardson posted a comment this morning asking for clarification of statements I have made about volunteer firemen having to live outside Charlestown.

The reply promised to be lengthy so I decided to fulfill one item on my to-do list by writing an article.

Some background

Our fire service in Charlestown is staffed by men, women and teenagers who volunteer with Charlestown Fire District or Dunn's Corners Fire District. If you have been reading the drama about Westerly Fire in the Westerly Sun you probably know that the fire districts are separate entities from the towns. They are managed separately and collect their own taxes. Those taxes are extremely low compared with districts which need to hire firefighters because of the number of responses or the lack of volunteer personnel.

I volunteer for Charlestown Fire so I'm only talking about that one. I think we work well with Charlestown Ambulance and Police. We have had joint training with Charlestown Ambulance and Dunn's Corners Fire and we work together with the Ambulance crews very effectively at accident scenes.

We don't have "working hours" when we are on duty. When the pager goes off, day or night, we decide whether we can respond to the station or not. If it's a serious emergency more people will show up but there's always a question of how many are on their way. It's more difficult during the work day because everyone except a few are working.

For large emergencies and times when few people can respond we have mutual aid agreements with other South County fire districts. For example, we had two fire trucks operating in important roles at the recent Ashaway Mill fire. During a recent explosion at Kenyon Mill we had numerous districts responding here though most were not needed in the end.

Beth asked why someone would volunteer at a station other than where he/she lives. They usually do volunteer where they live but sometimes events cause it to work out differently. Here are two examples.

The school bus driver

One of our members drives a school bus for Chariho School District. He ends up with some hours in the middle of each day when he's not working and he could respond easily from the Switch Road bus yard to our station. He comes by the station a lot and helps with equipment maintenance and such which is really valuable.

He really likes Charlestown and when he joined it was with the intention of moving here. He and his wife both drive buses for Chariho, jobs that do not permit time for another full-time job, and they have two children. In the two years he has been volunteering he has not been able to find a place here that he can afford. Because he lives in Westerly he never gets to the station rapidly unless the emergency occurs while he is between bus runs.

The lieutenant

There are two seats in the front of the fire engine - the driver seat and the officer seat. The person in the officer seat is very important for getting us to the scene, directing the truck to the right place and getting the crew mobilized for rapid action at the scene of the emergency. The engine officer is also the team leader for taking a crew into a burning building.

One of our officers lived close to the station for several years. He has a good full-time job "north of 95" but we could always count on him to arrive at the station quickly when he was in town. I often drove the truck with him in the officer seat. A few weeks ago he had "a little disagreement" with his landlord and moved out but he couldn't find another place that he could afford in Charlestown.

Now he lives in Westerly. He is hoping to move back soon but doesn't have any prospects yet. Though he spends time at the station doing his equipment maintenance duties and just hanging out sometimes, we have basically lost his services in the officer seat. As a specific example, we ran our Engine 713 to the recent Chariho student car crash with only two people because he wasn't there. Normally I would stay with the truck at an accident scene in case there is a fire and we need to pump water. With the manpower shortage I had to leave the truck to help run the extrication equipment.

The impact

If we could have had two more people at that crash scene we would have been better prepared for contingencies, meaning greater safety for the victims and responders, and could have served the victims faster and with a better safety margin.

That is my personal story about the need for housing in Charlestown for the people who serve the community, even in a volunteer role. Here are people serving Charlestown, basically without pay, and are willing to jump out of bed in the middle of the night and go into a burning building if necessary. These are great people. Who will take over for them, and half a dozen others, if we don't make our community a suitable home for them and their families?

And don't talk to me about houses for sale. These families are not candidates for purchasing homes. They just want a clean, decent, place to rent.

Thanks for reading, Tom