NEWS: Sanders Holds Town Meeting on the Crisis Facing Fire Departments and EMS in Vermont and Across Rural America

U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell joined Sanders to speak on the staffing crisis

Burlington, Vt., Jan. 29 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Saturday, joined by U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, held a virtual town meeting with Vermont firefighters and EMS providers to discuss the serious staffing crisis facing fire and EMS departments in Vermont and in other rural communities across the country.

Sanders spoke with panelists from career and volunteer departments in Fair Haven, Walden, Bristol, Thetford, Whiting, and Hartford, including the President of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont and Miss Vermont, a volunteer firefighter.

Over nearly two hours, during which Vermonters had the opportunity to call in and ask questions, the town hall covered a wide range of topics, from issues around grant writing, wages and pay, equipment prices and advancement, training accessibility, and funding structures, to engaging younger generations, women and others not often encouraged to serve.

“The fire service and EMS in Vermont and across this country are facing serious challenges, and neither career nor volunteer departments are immune,” said Sanders. “We will be discussing the reasons why we are where we are, and there are a lot of reasons. As I think all of you know, in the state of Vermont over 80% of fire departments are volunteer, while larger communities are served by career departments. EMS is also facing staffing shortages. In most cases what I am hearing across the board, is that there are very serious challenges related to recruitment and retention for first responders. That seems to be a problem facing all of our departments large or small. I am especially concerned that in rural areas dependent on volunteers we are reaching a very challenging situation where diminished staffing is creating a situation where smaller communities may not be able to respond effectively to the needs of the people who live in their towns. I think it’s going to require a combination of federal, state, and local efforts for us to go forward in the way that we need to, if we’re going to provide the services that our communities require.”

In Vermont and rural communities all over the country, fire and EMS departments are struggling to staff their rosters. The strain of the pandemic, increasing operational costs, training requirements, and other factors have only made things worse. In Vermont, about 96 percent of fire departments are categorized as all volunteer or mostly volunteer, and the time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities across the country an estimated $46.9 billion per year. However in 2017, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a 40-year low, while call volume has tripled in the last 30 years – due in large part to the increase in emergency medical calls.

During the town hall, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell said, “I really appreciate the opportunity to listen this morning, and the challenges I heard today are not unlike the challenges that I am hearing throughout the country. I think everyone in our field is exhausted. Not to mention the world itself, but certainly in the first responder realm. Some of these problems existed before covid and now they have been exasperated and orders of magnitude are different than they were before. As we talk about recruitment, this is a problem that is affecting a majority of departments regardless of type across the country. Because of a number of factors that vary a bit across area and region, we are seeing an overall drop in applicants nationwide.”

During the town hall, Sanders and Moore-Merrell heard from career and volunteer Vermont firefighters and EMS providers on the challenges they are facing and how the federal government can support them, including: Chris Dube, President of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont and Captain at the Hartford Fire Department; Sean Galvin, Deputy Chief of Fair Haven Rescue, Jason Larrabee, Chief of Walden Fire & Rescue; Brett LaRose, Chief of Bristol Fire Department; Danielle Morse, Miss Vermont and a firefighter with the Whiting Volunteer Fire Department; and Mariah Whitcomb, Deputy Chief of the Thetford Fire Department.

“The largest issue with EMS is the lack of personnel. For many years EMS was largely a volunteer endeavor,” said Deputy Chief Sean Galvin, of Fair Haven Rescue. “As training and EMS licensing requirements became more demanding it became necessary to become a paid job. There is little chance of maintaining the training and other demands on a volunteer status. Most communities still treat EMS as if it should be volunteer. We need to make this a career with a livable wage. You can make more at a fast-food restaurant than most EMS services. If it had a livable wage, you would encourage people to follow this career path and stay in VT. You would create jobs in Vermont that would support the economy and fill a critical need.”

In November of 2021, firefighters in Williston were reportedly forced to leave their station unstaffed for up to an hour in order to properly respond to an emergency. During the townhall, the Vermont first responders spoke of similar challenges facing their own and neighboring departments.

Mariah Whitcomb, Deputy Chief of the Thetford Fire Department, said, “How do we fund our departments adequately without continuing to raise taxes on folks who are already struggling? Recruitment and retention is also an issue across our departments. And it’s not for lack of interest necessarily. Mostly it is lack of time, lack of resources, lack of incentive. I recognize that extrinsic incentives such as money don’t always work. However, they are a start. And sometimes we do need to look at that to get people on board, to then foster that feeling that Brett talked about within the fire service of respect and pride in the work that we all do. There is a reason the people on this call have been doing this work for so long, we have pride in it. So how do we encourage that in some of our younger folks, how do we seek out representation across our state?”

Participant questions, both submitted in advance and asked live during the meeting, included discussion on funding equity between fire and EMS agencies, better pipelines from college programs to jobs in the field, health insurance coverage for on-the-job injuries and related illnesses, as well as mental health and wellness services for first responders.

When Sanders asked about the positive side of working in these rural departments, and what motivates some of these first responders to do the work, Deputy Chief Whitcomb responded, “It’s such a great question and it’s one that I think about often and talk about across the state when I’m teaching. It’s what we talk about and I start with, ‘What’s your why?” I do this work because I have the opportunity to show up on someone’s worst day and make it just a little bit better. And you can’t bottle that, you can’t put that in a check. That is an amazing feeling when you know you’ve made it just a little bit better. And you have that sense of accomplishment. You’re using those hours and hours and hours of training that you have devoted to be able to assist someone else. That level of service is something you don’t get anywhere else.”

To watch the full virtual town hall, see HERE.