Firefighters grill top U.S. fire official (Times Argus & Rutland Herald)

To view photos of the event click here.

By DAVID DELCORE Staff Writer

RANDOLPH — There wasn't a hint of smoke, but that didn't stop more than 100 firefighters from dozens of departments from responding to Randolph Union High School on Saturday morning.

Though nothing was burning when they arrived at 9:30, the firefighters themselves were "fully involved" during a two-hour "town meeting" organized by Sen. Bernie Sanders and attended by the nation's highest-ranking fire official.

Vermont firefighters from Ascutney to Worcester took full advantage of the opportunity to bend Sanders' ear, while picking the brain of U.S. Fire Administrator Greg Cade.

"What we want is for you to get as much information as you can," Sanders said, urging the mix of professional and volunteer firefighters to share their concerns with Cade.

They didn't need to be told twice.

Federal assistance, or what some argued has been a notable lack of it, was a predictably hot topic, during a session that saw Cade peppered with suggestions about everything from death benefits for firefighters to financial incentives that might make it easier to recruit and retain firefighters in rural states like Vermont.

Although most of the first-responders who crowded into the high school cafeteria generally agreed Vermont departments - both full-time and volunteer - have done well obtaining FireAct grants in recent years, many noted that valuable federal funding seems to have slowed to a trickle this year.

Only four grants totaling less than $750,000 were approved during the latest round of grant awards - a fact that prompted some to question whether Vermont was being penalized for its comparatively low call volumes and population.

"It seems to the federal FireAct money is moving away from rural fire departments," one firefighter suggested. "That is very, very concerning."

Sanders agreed.

"Why are we not getting more grants?" he asking Cade to make sure what might be an aberration doesn't develop into a trend.

According to Cade, part of the problem stems from the fact the federal government received more than $3 billion requests from 23,000 fire departments all hoping to tap a $450 million grant pool.

"We don't leave any money sitting on the table," he said, suggesting that the rising cost of fire trucks has placed an added strain on a grant program that has enabled many Vermont departments to upgrade their equipment at no cost to local taxpayers in recent years.

Gordon Smith, chief of the Johnson Volunteer Fire Department, told Cade he was perplexed none of that money came his way in the wake of a fire that destroyed the local fire station, totaled two trucks and sidelined the rest of the fleet for several months nearly four years ago.

Smith said he has been applying for a $275,000 grant to pay for a new fire engine since a month after the February 2004 only to be turned down on a regular basis.

"Somehow I feel, we fell through the cracks," said Smith, whose department serves three towns and a state college using a fleet that includes a refurbished 1974 pumper truck that was donated by the fire department in Provincetown, Mass., shortly after the fire.

Smith said he was stumped by a federal finding the department in Johnson hadn't adequately demonstrated a "need" and frustrated by a time-consuming grant application process that hasn't provided the assistance he'd hoped.

Sanders, whose office had been in contact with Smith prior to Saturday's meeting, said he was equally dumbfounded.

"It's hard for one to imagine if a department loses all their vehicles they aren't in 'need,'" he said, bristling at the suggestion that Smith's applications might not have survived the computer screening process that is used to narrow the field of funding requests.

"We want common sense to prevail," he said. "If a fire department doesn't have any equipment it doesn't take a Ph.D. to know they have a 'need.'"

John Benson, who serves on the selectboard and the volunteer fire department in Brookfield and Mark Sutton, chief of the Worcester Volunteer Fire Department, shared Smith's frustration.

Both worried that due to the size of their tiny towns and their comparatively low call volumes securing federal grants to help buy badly needed new trucks would be next to impossible.

Benson, who comes from a community with little tax base, said "ability to pay" should be taken into consideration given the heavy expense associated with replacing a fire truck.

"To a small community coming up with a quarter of a million dollars to buy a new piece of apparatus can be difficult," he said, explaining his department needed to replace one of its two fire trucks.

Sutton said Worcester was in a similar boat. In a town with 900 residents, virtually no commercial tax base and more than its share of state-owned land, he said raising the money to replace fire trucks that are 18 and 31 years old would be problematic.

"It would be nice if we could get a little help," he said.

Rep. Michel Consejo, D-Sheldon, said he felt the same way about the fire station in his hometown that is badly in need of repair.

"Where do we go? What do we do?" he asked.

Talk to Sanders, according to Cade, who said unless the law changes money for bricks and mortar was "specifically prohibited."

"I can only implement what the legislation tells me to," he said.

Rutland Fire Chief Robert Schlachter told said his department has received two FireAct grants, but told Sanders he wants Vermont's congressional delegation to push for fire funding to be "on par" with what is set aside for law enforcement each year.

"I know that's a long road to haul, but it's something we should be looking to do," he said.

Schlachter said he also supported creating more convenient training options at the local level and believed something should be done to address problems with the administration of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act.

The four-year-old law was designed to ensure that the families of firefighters and other emergency personnel who die in the line of duty from a stroke or heart attack receive financial help. However, Cade acknowledged a disproportionate number of claims have been denied and the matter was being looked into.

"A firefighter who is heading out to a fire shouldn't have to worry about what would happen to their families if, God forbid, they don't come home," Schlachter said.

South Burlington Fire Chief Doug Brent was among those who said the recruitment and retention of firefighters was a growing concern in rural states like Vermont.

Brent said he recently advertised a vacancy, but was forced to re-advertise based on the caliber of the applicants.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day when we would have trouble recruiting career firefighters, but it's happening more and more," he said.

Sanders said he was even more concerned about the ranks of Vermont's volunteer departments, and received a rousing round of applause when he suggested the federal government work with the state to create financial incentives for long-time volunteers.

Cade said some states have established programs that reward volunteers with stipends for length of service and others offer tax relief for active volunteers.

"It's really up to the state," he said.