BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — The Bellows Falls Board of Trustees on Tuesday decided to disband its municipal fire department, and now the village is assessing how to create a chief-and-on-call format like many other departments in the state.
Shane O’Keefe, the municipal manager, says the rumblings of change started when voters passed a $1.7 million budget in July, about $241,290 less than the $1,941,290 budget originally proposed by the trustee board.
“It has been contentious in the community, but we also have budget realities that we have to face,” O’Keefe said. “And this was the means in which the trustees decided to try and make budget with these departmental cuts.”
He explained that most of the municipal taxes go to either fire or police, and the remaining water and sewer budget are based on fees instead of taxes. So, the cuts are a substantial amount.
Due to an agreement the town has with the firefighters union, any layoffs require a 125-day notice. That warning was issued in mid-August, and the target date for dismissal has been Dec. 11.
Under the latest arrangement, the village’s four firefighters will be furloughed on Dec. 11, and then released by the end of the month.
There has been some push back, however. O’Keefe noted that residents filed a petition a week ago asking for another village vote, the aim of which would be to raise about $65,000 to reinstate the firefighters.
“There are some people out there who feel strongly about that,” O’Keefe said.
According to an earlier report by the Brattleboro Reformer, when the trustees chose in August to move ahead with layoffs, local residents spoke out strongly for and against keeping the department. The main conflict was between promoting public safety versus making the best use of taxpayer money.
Assuming the cuts to the department go through, O’Keefe said the nearby Rockingham volunteer fire department and Saxons River volunteer fire department will likely need to help mitigate the lost fire coverage.
“We’re looking at a lot of different scenarios at this time,” he said. “We have a budget that the board has approved that anticipates the fire department going from a full-time department to a department that has a full-time chief with a call-department.
“It’s similar to a vast majority of other departments throughout the state — either they are volunteer or call-departments.”
He said the town convened a special committee make these recommendations to the trustees based on their needs and budget constraints, and that what makes the decision tricky is that Bellows Falls is a little larger than the average rural town.
“The Village of Bellows Falls is not necessarily rural; it’s a compact downtown with residential neighborhoods surrounding it. And so it’s a bit different than a lot of the municipalities that you see.”
He emphasized that the town is only in “the very beginning stages” of this assessment designing a new arrangement, and that more details will likely be figured out by the end of December.
In an interview with True North, Professional Firefighters of Vermont President Bradley Reed said “clearly this is going to increase the risk” of someone getting hurt or killed in an emergency situation.
He said the issue with an on-call service is that there’s no guarantee who’s going to show up, or when. Instead of having top-trained professionals at the ready, it’s going to be volunteers of mixed experience who carry pagers and will have to get themselves to the department before they can begin to respond.
“In the business that we do, response time can mean people’s lives,” Reed said, calling the new emergency response situation “very unpredictable.”
He added that retaining the four qualified firefighters under a volunteer system is unlikely. He figures they will most likely take their services to another community that will keep them full time.
“They are trained firefighters and EMTs,” he said. “This is their life.”
Bellows Falls fire chief Ronald Lake told True North he was aware of the new developments at Tuesday’s meeting, but would not comment beyond that.