Alan Chartock | I, Publius: As volunteer pool dwindles, let's find ways to compensate firefighters

GREAT BARRINGTON — When we lived in Alford all those years ago, I was recruited into the Alford Fire Department.

It was not an easy job. I am a perfect example of one of those New York college professor types who has absolutely no mechanical ability at all.

But the Alford Fire Department needed people, and I was signed up as a fireman with an oversize hat and coat that made me appear even more gnomelike than I think I am.

I was assigned the task of being the secretary to the department. It was my job to take the roll at meetings, and then I helped build the Alford Fire Department firehouse. In that capacity, I recruited a phenomenal architect, Rolf Karl, to design the building.

There really were not that many fires, but the boss of the town, Gus Berkey, managed to get a full tanker truck that carried immense amounts of water. We were assured at the time that we would be called to fires in other localities.

But when there was a fire up on a long hill in the middle of the night in already deserted Alford, my colleagues in the department would put me down on the road that no car would ever be on and tell me to "direct traffic." When we moved from Alford to Great Barrington, I was out of the department. But enough about me.

There is a looming risk in the Berkshires and in many other localities that there are not enough volunteer firefighters to staff the Fire Department. Political scientists might call the problem a "paradigm shift."

In the old days, if you were a firefighter, you were inducted into a sort of prestigious secret society. You were marked as a special kind of person. On Fire Island, where I spent my summers, the Fire Department folks were mostly "year-rounders" and it was difficult to be admitted, especially if you were an outsider, with all that meant. Eventually, that situation expanded to include former "outsiders."

But now, many formerly volunteer fire departments are having a real crisis recruiting members. People have busy lives. Many travel to work in other places such as New York City or Albany. There just aren't enough men and women who are willing to sign up. That means things will have to change.

The argument could be made, and maybe should be made, that we pay our police to mainly go after middle-class speeders in Great Barrington. We have a lot of police for a rather small population. So, why not pay our firemen and women? It could be done with a few full-time firefighters and maybe some part-timers paid by the hour.

That would include training sessions and time at fires. In addition, one other way to find people to participate in doing this difficult work might be to offer to pay a portion of their health insurance. Hey, we give our police health insurance, which they should certainly get, but we also give it to Great Barrington selectmen, and that's ridiculous.

There is also another plan floating around that is to have the Great Barrington Fire Department professionalized and have it cover the surrounding towns. Naturally, this will be a hard sell to the other existing local departments, where history and tradition die hard. 

When we moved the Great Barrington Fire Department from its place in the middle of town just a little farther north, I had my doubts about the ability of the trucks to get to my house in time.

Can you imagine having to get to a fire in Egremont or Sheffield? So, maybe we should seek a compromise in which the existing departments stay as they are but the Great Barrington Fire Department becomes supplemental to their efforts. As a taxpayer, I can tell you that there are some things worth paying for.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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