By:CT Insider, Natasha Sokoloff, staff writer
With recruiting and retaining of volunteer firefighters and EMS workers being a continued challenge, at least one local town recently approved a measure that would allow those workers to qualify for a tax abatement.
Volunteer firefighters and EMS workers in Canton will now receive a property tax abatement, jumping on a trend that some other Farmington Valley towns have started in recent years.
But reduced property taxes is not the only benefit that many volunteer fire departments in the area have used to help grow their ranks as they attempt to alleviate staffing shortages.
“I think the day and age that we're in, there's certainly things that you need to be able to entice people to come down and help out,” said Johnathon Gotaski, chief of the Canton Volunteer Fire and EMS Department.
Under the abatement, each eligible active member of the department, who has been certified for a year is entitled to a tax abatement up to $2,000 for the grand list year just preceding the certification date.
“Right now, I would say about half the department meets the numbers to get the full tax exemption,” Gotaski said. “But we're hoping that at some point, it motivates a) our current volunteers to all meet it, but b) hopefully, motivate some people in town to join the ranks.”
Canton currently has approximately 45 volunteers in the department. And while the abatement is a great step forward for supporting volunteers, the department has also used other measures to appeal to community members, Gotaski said.
For example, Canton has increased the pay on call rate from $7 to $25 a call, as well as providing pool passes, he said.
“What we're hoping with incentives is now that everything is approved, we can really market it to the town and get the get the word out there,” Gotaski said.
Even in departments like Simsbury’s, which has 85 active firefighters on its roster, there are still some obstacles when it comes to making sure all six of its firehouses are fully staffed.
“Our problem for membership is in one specific area of town,” said Jason Gilbert, chief of personnel at the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Company.
While most of the firehouses have numbers in the mid to upper teens or even over 20, the Tariffville and Weatogue stations have 10 or less volunteers.
And even though Simsbury offers incentives across all of their firehouses, including a tax abatement and subsidized gym membership, they have moved to focus their recruitment efforts in those areas where the need is highest, Gilbert said.
Although the benefits may not be the sole reason that people join, that is something that they touch on during recruitment events, he said. “But most of them are looking for a way to give back.”
Avon’s issues with staffing also share a common thread with many other volunteer departments, which is that staffing needs change depending on the time of day, with the main shortage occurring in the daytime when members are working their full-time jobs, said Joe Speich, the assistant chief.
Although the Avon Volunteer Fire Department has about 50 active volunteers, when they aren’t working their day jobs, many of them are involved in activities with their families or could be working more than one job, which is similar across other volunteer fire departments, he said. Training requirements also take up a lot of time, which can impact some people’s decision to apply.
“It leaves departments to kind of develop a balance of our members being involved in the department and being available for calls, but also spending time with their families,” Speich said.
Eventually, Avon might try to resort to some daytime paid staffing, he said. They currently offer a property tax abatement, free annual physical, life insurance and a college reimbursement program in which they will reimburse members up to a certain amount for taking a college class related to public safety.
But Speich said he couldn’t say for sure whether those benefits actually make a difference in recruitment numbers.
“I think it all depends on the member,” he said. “Some members, if we got rid of all of our benefits, would still stay with the fire department. And some members are in it because we do offer some great benefits.”
Additionally, recruitment fluctuates depending on multiple factors, including how many recruitment events they hod as well as certain things going on around the nation, Speich said. For example, after Sept. 11, 2001, many people joined the volunteer department, he said.
On average, they recruit five to 10 new members a year. “But there are some years where we recruit less than that and there's some years we recruit more than that,” Speich said.
That's why it's so important for the department to work with the town to continue to find ways to help recruitment and retention rates, he said.
Gotaski sees things like a tax abatement as a token of a town's appreciation for all that they do, he said. And now that Canton's abatement has been approved, they can really just focus on marketing the department to the community and get the word out so more people will join, he said.
“We're just here to support our volunteers and the work that they do to support their neighbor," Gotaski said.