This is the final part of The Valley Reporter’s three-part series summarizing a recent conversation with Warren Volunteer Fire Department chief Jeff Campbell, Waitsfield-Fayston Volunteer Fire Department chief Tripp Johnson, and Moretown Volunteer Fire Department chief Stefan Pratt.
Johnson called mutual aid, an agreement between fire departments to assist each other, “a godsend. It’s a brotherhood. We’re there to help each other out. We’ve got a saying that if you have that gut feeling, call us and we’ll help you out. That’s what we do. It takes so many members to run a fire scene safely. If you have two people in a burning building, roughly you’re going to have about four to six people supporting those two people in the building.”
“I work in Moretown, one of my other officers works in Moretown,” Pratt said. “That’s only two of us; everybody else doesn’t. So, Waitsfield I have on automatic mutual aid during the day. They’re going to come, no matter what, on a weekday. It’s just, right off the bat, get them on their way.”
“I think about Mountainside [fire in 2013],” Campbell said, “President’s Day weekend, the temperature when we got there was -20 [degrees]. You start losing manpower that way — people are cold or they’re tired or whatever. Or it’s 90 degrees outside and you can only do so much, you’re going to overexert yourself, so that’s even more reason for more manpower. It’s like Ghostbusters; ‘who you gonna call?’ That’s the challenge of it. We’re volunteers. We do our best; we do what we can do.”
In the recent fire at the Viens’ home in Fayston, the Waitsfield-Fayston, Warren, Moretown, Waterbury, Berlin and Stowe Fire Departments were on the scene. “We went far. Probably the next phone call was going to be Barre Town,” Campbell said.
Asked how fires are fought, he said, “It’s teamwork, water and sometimes lots of water.”
Regarding supplying water to fight fires, Pratt said, “It’s a never-ending battle. I rely heavily on the Warren and Waitsfield fire departments to help.”
“Another thing too is when you’re in that gear and it’s very hot out, like the day of the Viens’ fire, or with the Mountainside fire, the elements, when you’re done working that, the Mad River Valley Ambulance is a godsend,” Johnson said. “They do an extremely good job with firefighter rehab. People go to rehab, that takes time out of the equation. If their blood pressure isn’t right or their CO levels are high — anything that’s wrong, whoever the crew chief is, is the boss of that person.”
“When we have trainings, we train with newer technology and all that but still we focus on the basics,” he said. “Everything mechanical or battery-powered can fail on you. If you’re doing the basics, that’s what’s going to keep you alive.”
The three chiefs agreed that adverse weather conditions such as mud season in The Valley can be a challenge.
“Mud season is the only thing I worry about,” Campbell said. “I don’t worry about snow. The guys will plow the road to wherever we need to go. Mud season, they can only do so much.”
“Mud season’s hard,” Pratt agreed. “I actually work for the highway department, so I have some insight about what’s bad when. This year there was absolutely places where it would have done a significant amount of damage to the truck. If I needed to get to somebody’s house, that’s why we’ve chosen to have a four-wheel drive engine in Moretown. We’ll do what we can to get there. With some of the mud this year, I don’t even know if we could have gotten there. We would have had to have the road crew build us a road or drag us through it with a grader. We depend heavily” on road crews, Pratt said.
“The road crews are excellent with communicating with us about the bad spots,” Johnson added. “They work their tails off but the old saying ‘is Mother Nature’s going to do what Mother Nature wants.’”
They said community members are also a huge part of fighting fires. Local stores often provide coffee and sandwiches for firefighters. “When there’s a tragic event, This Valley really is magical,” Johnson said. “The last fire we had — everybody was valuable on that scene, don’t get me wrong. For me personally as the incident commander, one of the most valuable people that helped me out went to get sandwiches and so on. You don’t have be the lead, you don’t have to drive the truck. There’s so much that needs to be done and it takes a lot of people, it takes every talent.”
State law says that volunteer firefighters can leave work for an emergency and the local fire chiefs said most employers are understanding when volunteers need to leave to respond to a call. Waitsfield and Warren volunteer firefighters receive a small stipend for calls; Moretown firefighters do not.
IN 50 YEARS
When asked where they see their fire departments 50 years from now, Pratt said, “I see manpower being very much of a challenge. I see people struggling to get firefighter one training and stuff like that.” He also noted that it’s going to depend largely on new development. If houses continue to be built in remote or difficult-to-access areas, it may call for more equipment and manpower. Campbell also noted the need for 9-1-1 address signs on homes so fire departments can easily find them in an emergency.
The housing crisis also is a factor, they said. With local workers increasingly needing to live outside of The Valley due to lack of housing and specifically affordable housing, Campbell asked, “How are we going to have guys responding to calls when some of them may be coming from 25 minutes away?”
Campbell said he’d like to see houses with solar marked to be able to tell in winter what the materials are. “If you have to cut a hole in the roof you have to know, are you standing on a roof at 3:00 in the morning or are you standing on a solar panel?” he said.
Warren Fire Department celebrated its 75th anniversary on August 13 with a community celebration where firefighters were present to talk to the community. The Valley fire departments have been talking about having a similar event at one of the departments each year to give community members a chance to interact with their fire departments. Campbell noted that the local schools do a good job of educating students about fire safety but that sort of education needs to reach adults, too.
Asked how community members can learn more and get involved, Johnson said, “Come by the fire house, visit us, see what your investments are [doing], talk to us, come to training.”
“You will never bother us,” Pratt said. “You have put in tax money to pay for this. We would be happy to talk to you, tell you what we’re working on, what we’re working towards, any time.”