Friday, September 12, 2003
Carlisle's all-call firefighters exemplify the spirit of volunteerism
This is the second installment in a series of articles featuring the Carlisle Fire Department.
You can probably picture the prototypic scene from a fire department's bustling headquarters: the alarm goes off, and firefighters materialize from every corner of the building, setting down sandwiches in the station's utilitarian kitchen, sliding down a pole, emerging from bunk rooms and offices.
In Carlisle, it's a little different. As with any fire department, firefighters mobilize instantly when they hear the alarm go off. But instead of abandoning activities around the station, they're more likely to be at home: cooking dinner, helping a child get ready for school, packing for vacation or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.
Carlisle's Fire Department functions on an "all-call" basis. Fire Chief David Flannery explains that, "this means that there are no full-time personnel. Firefighters and EMTs are alerted to a call via pager." The department has been structured this way since its founding in 1926. As such, according to Flannery, "it is very unusual, if not unique, in this area. Other towns that previously had all-call departments, including Lincoln, Westford and Littleton, have all changed over in recent years to a full-time department."
Although the term "volunteer fire department" is commonly applied to this kind of system, it is not strictly accurate. Firefighters are paid an annual stipend of $1,000, and are paid an additional hourly rate when they go out on a call. They are compensated for their training time as well. Within the 27-member force, there are four titled officers working with Chief Flannery: Deputy Chief Jonathan White, Captain J.J. Supple, and Lieutenants Rob Koning and Doug Stevenson. Each of the officers has a specific domain of responsibility at the station, including vehicle maintenance, personnel recruitment, and oversight of firefighting equipment. Burt Rubinstein serves as emergency medical services coordinator and is responsible for upkeep of ambulance equipment and supplies.
The average number of emergency calls has changed little over the past twenty years; it remains around 325. These are equally divided among medical emergencies and fire emergencies. About 65 false alarms per year are typical as well. "That's a reasonable number of calls for an on-call department," says Flannery. "If we had twice that volume, we'd have trouble with coverage; and if we had to send firefighters out two or three times a day, we'd lose volunteers. Right now, we're at a good comfort level with call volume."
Flannery generally hears from five to ten prospective volunteers each year. Of those who initially express interest, about half end up joining the force. Motives for joining Carlisle's Fire Department vary. Tom Bishop of Martin Street, whose daytime job is sales manager for a medical equipment manufacturer, admits that his own reasons for being a firefighter have changed significantly since he first joined the force in 1982. "I was about twenty then and taking a break from college," he recalls. "My parents told me that if I wasn't going to school, I'd better find something to do."
Bishop began his EMT training at the same time that he trained as a firefighter, and discovered that he had a talent for managing emergencies. "Working in the midst of an emergency is a stressful, intense, and adrenaline-pumping situation," he says. "I found that I was good at that. Back then, my interest was in helping people, but honestly, it was also about the adrenaline rush."
A move out-of-state ended Bishop's initial tenure with the department. Then in 2001, he returned to town with his wife, Mary, and their two children. He rejoined the force in November of that year and has just recently completed his EMT recertification. "I grew up here," he says. "When you're in your teens, you don't always appreciate what you have and the opportunities you've been given. Now I want to give something back to the town, and help create a community in which my family feels comfortable and safe."
East Street resident George Middleton still vividly recalls his introduction to the Carlisle Fire Department. "When my daughter was born thirteen years ago, I went to the fire station for a course in infant CPR," he says. "Throughout the class, I was distracted by looking out the windows at the fire trucks. Isn't it every boy's fantasy to ride on a fire truck? So I applied." Middleton has served on the force continuously throughout the past twelve years and calls it "quite a ride. It's certainly challenged me on a personal level in many areas. I've had some real satisfactions and some real disappointments. Helping to save someone in a bad situation is very rewarding. The down side is that sometimes, despite everything you do, the result turns out negatively. You learn that there are always going to be ups and downs, and you just try to do the best you can and be there when it counts."
Training of a new firefighter generally takes about a year, says Flannery, varying somewhat with the individual's time commitment. Each member of the force is required to commit a minimum of twenty hours per week on call and to attend an evening training twice a month. More training hours are required of officers and EMTs.
The time commitment
It is the time commitment and the habitual interruptions of the pager going off that impact the firefighters on a daily basis far more than the potential for danger, Middleton says. "No matter how you look at it, even if you go on just a few calls a month, you have to be around to meet your availability requirements, and you have to attend trainings. The challenge is to figure out how much you can do and still attend to your family responsibilities and your professional responsibilities. It's not easy to establish that balance."
Mary Beth Stevenson of Cross Street is intimately familiar with the balance to which Middleton refers. Her husband Doug is a lieutenant with the fire department, and emergencies frequently call him away from family time with the couple's two-and-a-half-year-old triplets. "The worst time for the pager to go off is when we're reading bedtime stories to the kids," she says. "They've just gotten settled down and ready to go to bed, and all of a sudden Doug has to take off. They don't understand the urgency of it, why Daddy has to rush off so quickly.
"The most calls seem to come during brush-burning season," Mary Beth says. "Doug might be out on calls all day Saturday and again all day Sunday. I'm used to taking care of the children on my own during the week, but by the weekend, I'm usually ready for some reinforcement." She can reel off any number of events that Doug's pager has interrupted, but for her, the benefits are worth the costs. "The fire department was a big part of his life long before I knew him," she says. "He enjoys it, so I don't want him to give it up. And we have a lot of fun as part of the department. There's a lot of camaraderie."
Flannery agrees that camaraderie is one of the key benefits of being on the force. "People move to Carlisle because it's a small, rural community," he says, but he agrees with recent public discussion that for some, life in Carlisle can be socially isolating. "I think that's what draws some people to this department. They may not be interested in serving on a committee or board, but they want to be involved and get to know other people."
As the department's newest recruit, Jeffrey Kiel of Davis Road finds that he is pursuing the same interests that engaged him as a boy. "I was active as a Boy Scout when I was young," Kiel says. "That's when I started learning about first aid, and it really interested me. Now I'm getting certified as an EMT. Being a firefighter allows me to give something back to this community." Kiel says his training over the past two months has been "informative and fun. I am so impressed with the level of professionalism within this department."
There are currently 27 members on the force, of whom 17 are also trained as EMTs. (All firefighters are trained as first responders, meaning that they have basic CPR and first-aid skills.) Flannery says that he feels well-staffed right now and that a force of 30 would be ideal. "If you have too many, then no one is going out on enough calls, and their skills become less sharp," he explains.
Obviously, a more urgent question is what happens if there are too few people willing to serve as firefighters. So far, Flannery has not faced that problem. "Every member of the force is required to put in a minimum of 20 on-call hours a week," Flannery explains. "At any given time, any firefighter who is available to go out on a call notifies the dispatcher at our communications center. When an emergency call comes in, the dispatcher can see at a glance what our staffing levels are." The minimum on-call requirement at any time is to have two EMTs, one officer and three additional firefighters available.
So what happens if there are too few lights on at the communications center, signifying sub-minimum availability? "A tone goes out on everyone's pager," Flannery says. "What it means is that whoever is available should call in. There might be someone who is around but forgot to have their light switched on, or who can change their plans."
That's when the real "volunteer" part of the "volunteer" department kicks in, Flannery explains. "Believe me, people do make sacrifices when that signal goes out. When department members hear we're short, they adjust their schedule: they cancel a family excursion or a trip to the hardware store to make sure we're covered. And that's where they are really going beyond the call of duty, because remember, they are not compensated for their availability, only for going out on a call." In other words, a firefighter might decide to stay home for the afternoon just to boost availability, but if no emergencies occur during that time, he won't get paid for it. "That's what I call our real community spirit, our spirit of volunteerism," Flannery says. "Invariably, when the tone goes out, our staffing level goes up."
Tom Bishop points out that despite the significant time sacrifice that firefighters make, there are unexpected benefits as well. "My son is four, so naturally he is really interested in firefighting," he says with amusement. "For him, telling his friends what his dad does is kind of a big deal. Sometimes when I'm driving the fire engine, I swing by the house. That earns me a whole lot of points with the kids."
Chief Flannery encourages anyone who wants to learn more about how to become a firefighter to contact the Fire Department. Information will also be available at the Fire Department's annual open house, to be held in October.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito