This is part two of The Valley Reporter’s conversation with Warren Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jeff Campbell, Waitsfield-Fayston Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tripp Johnson and Chief of Moretown Volunteer Fire Department, Stefan Pratt. The series will continue next week.
The Waitsfield-Fayston Fire Department currently has 24 volunteers, while Moretown has 15 and Warren has 24 or 25. The Warren Fire Department received 92 calls last year and this year received 87 calls before the end of August. When asked what explains the increase in calls, Campbell said: ‘I think it’s population growth or second home owners making it their main residence. We will probably see at least 25% growth. Waitsfield typically receives 110 to 120 calls, and Johnson said the department is on course for a typical year. Pratt said Moretown typically gets 30 to 50 calls a year.
As for the causes of these fires, “much of it has to do with wood stoves,” Johnson said, “electricity, basic maintenance, or neglect of infrastructure maintenance in people’s homes. “.
“During COVID, people were selling their homes and now there are new people who don’t know any of the Vermont quirks that this house had,” Pratt said. “They don’t know the wiring in the garage is smaller than it probably should be.”
“And then they plug the power strip into the power strip in the wall,” Campbell added.
Construction materials have also changed. “Back in the 1970s era, there was old hardwood,” Johnson said. “Not everything was synthetic, wasn’t oil-based. Nowadays, firefighting has changed a lot with the way fire behaves, the danger to us, the way we have been educated to fight fires. The biggest threat to a firefighter these days is the 57% cancer rate. With the new generation of firefighters, that’s what really interests them. That’s what we all focus on these days. The fires of when Paul [Hartshorn] and Gordi [Eurich] started had no toxicity. We bought an extractor and we are in the process of installing it.
“It pulls all the carcinogens out of the equipment,” Campbell added.
There are two parts to the jackets that firefighters wear: an outer layer that protects against cuts and abrasions and an inner thermal layer. Both can absorb carcinogens and should be washed separately. The extraction and drying process takes more than 10 hours. Two sets can fit in the machine at a time.
“Jeff [Campbell] was very, very helpful in getting us to use his puller,” Johnson said. “But the thing is, the last fire we had, Jeff had, I believe, 16 members there. I had 16 or 18. Moretown had seven. “Counting on Jeff’s puller, that puts us out of action for a long time,” Johnson said.
“The challenge is you can wash your balaclavas, you can wash your jackets, you can wash your pants,” Campbell said, but boots are usually unwashed and can also contain carcinogens. There are companies outside of Connecticut and Massachusetts that can professionally wash firefighting gear, including helmets and boots, that local chiefs want to talk to their select boards about. “We plan to take this business up and have [the gear] professionally cleaned and inspected,” Johnson said. He said firefighting equipment must be replaced every 10 years whether it has been used or not.
“It’s our job as fire chiefs, number one to keep the scene safe, and it’s our job to protect our [firefighters] and it’s also after the scene. With the cancer rate being so high, it’s something we’re very focused on,” Johnson said. “Protection starts before with training, then obviously at the scene of the fire, and then afterwards it’s about taking care of the equipment and everything else.”
They said the equipment is improving over time, although the cost of maintenance and testing has also increased. Hoses, air packs and gas meters should be tested. Johnson said three years ago air packs were listed at $5,600; they now cost $7,800. A set of gear costs around $3,600, plus the price of a radio and air pack. The bottles alone cost $1,600 and need to be replaced every 15 years.
” We have [hose tests] done in September,” Campbell said. “We will also have our ladders tested. It will end up costing us around $7,000.
“Mine went up $600 this year,” Johnson said. Pratt said he was working on getting the pipes tested for the first time and working with the Moretown Select Board to determine the cost.
Asked how technology has changed the way departments work, Johnson said: “The biggest thing that has changed, and which I think is a very, very valuable tool, is our thermal imaging camera. It is a tool to let us know how to attack the fire. It is a tool that allows us to know if someone is trapped; it gives off their body heat. It’s been my most valuable tool for 15 years.
“The new construction is a challenge for us. Electric vehicles are a challenge for us. We had a car on fire at the top of Route 17 — multiple cars — but you weren’t that with the magnesium metals and stuff like that, it just wasn’t happening. There are these challenges.
Warren Fire Chief Jeff Campbell added, “Technology that has allowed people to come up with better tactics. In the past you would want to break a window, now that’s the last thing you would do. You want to trap the amount of air that enters the building, because the more air you give it, the more it will feed. Technology and different studies have improved the way we do things. Now what could have been a whole house fire can be contained in a single room.