One firefighter puts Leyden in ‘precarious position’

By LIESEL NYGARD

For the Recorder

Published: 02-23-2023 5:15 PM

LEYDEN — As the lone member of the Fire Department, interim Officer-in-Charge Nikolas Adamski hopes to help rebuild Leyden’s firefighting services, a move that may require more regional collaboration.

Adamski, who has been with the department for 12 years and was appointed to the interim officer-in-charge role following the departure of Brian Pelletier, said the lack of volunteers can be attributed to the lengthy training required and the lack of equipment in Leyden, as well as younger volunteers growing up and “starting their lives.”

In the event of a fire, surrounding towns such as Bernardston, Colrain, Greenfield and Guilford, Vermont, have offered a helping hand.

“We want to be good neighbors, as well as the other towns around them,” said Bernardston Fire Chief Peter Shedd. “It’s a fire safety hazard to have only one person.”

In the future, Adamski said he would love to have an independent department again, but if Leyden needs to, it can pursue a shared chief arrangement with either Bernardston or Colrain, meaning Leyden and the neighboring town would employ firefighters separately but have the same chief.

Speaking during a recent Selectboard meeting, member Glenn Caffery said he feels the shared chief model is “the most attractive model,” but nothing has been confirmed.

“We are squarely in a rebuilding phase of our Fire Department,” Caffery said. “There’s synergies when neighboring towns have the same leader. There’s more tight coordination that’s possible than [there is between multiple] chiefs.”

Adamski said if the shared chief method doesn’t work, there’s a possible “Plan B,” where Leyden would have to hire three people during the day for coverage.

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“What I would like our board to do is reaffirm our commitment to making sure that Leyden rebuilds its Fire Department,” said Caffery, “and do our part to contribute to mutual aid, which the whole fire safety is premised on.”

“Obviously it’s a priority,” Selectboard member Katherine DiMatteo said of rebuilding the Fire Department, especially considering Adamski holds a full-time job with the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Office of Waste Management. “It just puts us in a very precarious position and puts stress on not only all of us in town, but stress on our neighboring towns, too.”

Adamski said he’d like to have at least 20 to 25 volunteers to cover day and night shifts and to fill some of the fire trucks on calls.

“I’ve been knocking on people’s doors to see if I can get any recruits,” he said.

Still, Adamski said the problem isn’t an isolated one, with firefighters in small towns becoming “more and more scarce.”

A widespread issue

Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said “there has been a trend of volunteers going down, with 2020 reaching the lowest volunteers on record.” According to a fact sheet on the council’s website, there were 676,900 volunteer firefighters in the United States in 2021.

“Volunteers make up 65% of the U.S. fire departments and a lot of those communities only have volunteers,” Quiros said. “We’re still very reliant.”

However, Jack Parow, secretary/treasurer of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, said he is unsure what is causing the decline in volunteer firefighters.

“We don’t really know why,” Parow said. “Maybe it’s a generational thing.”

Locally, Nicholas Anzuoni, chief of the Colrain and Heath fire departments, said “any volunteer fire department is struggling to find people.”

Anzuoni said his departments have tried various recruitment strategies, but because most residents don’t work in Colrain or Heath, it is difficult to have people available who can respond to calls.

On both departments, Anzuoni has about 12 volunteer firefighters, but he said a good roster would have between 20 to 25 people.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” he said.

Joe Cuneo, fire chief for Wendell and New Salem, said the main issues he’s noticed have been economic and demographic-related. Echoing Anzuoni, Cuneo said it’s difficult for people to work on fire departments on a volunteer basis because “folks have to live and work.”

Cuneo added that it’s “often difficult for young folks, especially in our towns, to be able to afford living in the towns and start a family and get an education and go to school while also taking part on the fire department.”

“There’s no magic bullet,” said Cuneo. “You need to have available people who are willing to serve on the fire department.”

Including Cuneo, there are seven firefighters on the Wendell Fire Department and 12 firefighters on the New Salem Fire Department.

Problem solving

When it comes to finding solutions, Parow said grants from the federal government can help with the costs of recruitment and retention of firefighters in the department.

“To retain those men and women is another issue,” Parow said. “Once you hire them, you want to keep them because the cities and towns are using a lot of money to keep them and train them.”

Also to help bolster recruitment, Parow suggests holding open houses at the fire stations, as well as having firefighters visit high schools to speak with juniors and seniors to “maybe move them in that direction and give them the knowledge that it’s an option.”

Quiros suggests that fire departments offer educational scholarships or tax credits, as well as market themselves as a place to volunteer, “learn new skills and get training.”

“The biggest solution is to let community members know that they can be firefighters,” Quiros proposed. “It’s really important that we keep a volunteer firefighter format.”

Training requirements

As part of their training, volunteers are certified to the level of Firefighter I and II through the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

According to Jake Wark, spokesperson for the state Department of Fire Services, if individuals want to be full-time firefighters, they must go through a career recruit program that lasts for 10 weeks, five days a week. For volunteers, training schedules are created around the individual’s full-time job and/or education. The training is held on nights and weekends in the amount of 240 hours total.

For Leyden, on top of those training requirements, Adamski said department members train with Colrain for a few hours each week.

Leyden volunteers are paid $18 an hour, and the pay begins when their pager goes off. As interim officer in charge, Adamski receives a stipend of $5,000 per year.

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old. Adamski said out-of-towners who live close to the Leyden town line might be acceptable, but Leyden residents would be preferable.

“Nik is our Fire Department,” Caffery said. “Nik is showing up at all meetings, he goes on calls when storms bring down branches over wires. Nik seems to have ‘Herculean’ energy but … recruitment is important and necessary.”

Those interested in volunteering can call Leyden’s Fire Station at 413-773-7673.

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