Add firefighting to the list of activities young adults in Waterbury are enthusiastic about.
Waterbury Fire Chief Gary Dillon says the average age of his 50-member department is early to mid-30s, but “one whole string” of five young men have joined in the last year. Two just graduated from high school; the others still attend Harwood Union High School.
When Dillon calls the group a “string,” he’s not using a metaphor — all five of his newest young members were, or are, on the Harwood boys hockey team.
“It was like a flood,” Dillon said.
The Waterbury Fire Department accepts volunteers as young as 16 years old. Until they turn 18, they’re “junior” firefighters, and Dillon holds them to safety rules that will ease up as they get older and gain more experience.
For instance, on the Waterbury department, junior firefighters aren’t typically allowed to drive fire trucks on calls, or assist with calls on Interstate 89. If they’re not comfortable with heights, they don’t have to climb up the almost-100-foot ladder.
“We care about each other on this department,” Dillon said. “We don’t let them in burning buildings. They’re our kids. We take care of them like their own parents would.”
Dillon thinks that loving feeling is what keeps people on the department. It’s both a literal and figurative family, he says — many folks are on the department because their parents or grandparents were on it before them.
Dillon grew up on Wallace Street. One of his assistant chiefs grew up around there, too, and he’s known a few of his new recruits since they were young children.
“We encourage people to be part of our family here,” Dillon said. “We do a lot of things together,” such as summer gatherings and helping each other out with chores like stacking wood.
In 2009, the Waterbury town and village fire departments merged into a single organization. Now, the Waterbury Fire Department has two offices, one on Maple Street and one on Main Street, and 50 firefighters and officers in its ranks — 45 men and five women, including Dillon’s wife, Sally, who is a battalion chief.
There’s not a lot of turnover on the department, so it can be hard for firefighters to move up the ranks, because officers tend to stay in their roles for many years, Dillon said. He’s been chief for 15 years, but he’s been a member since 1981.
Dillon has divided the department into four companies. Everyone trains on the same day, but different companies hone different skills at different times of the month, to keep everyone’s abilities sharp.
Trainings are held the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. First and third Tuesdays are devoted to station maintenance.
Firefighters are encouraged to attend every training session they can, but that’s not a requirement to stay on the department.
While other volunteer organizations around the state struggle to recruit and retain members, Dillon says his department has never done any recruiting.
“People come to us and we take a look at them,” he said.
Requirements to join include passing a criminal record check.
“We owe it to the community,” Dillon said —since his department serves people at a vulnerable time, its members need to have clean backgrounds. He says he can work with a person who has a misdemeanor on his or her record, depending on the severity of the charge and how long ago he or she was convicted, but a felony conviction is automatically disqualifying.
Dillon’s ranks have hovered around 50 for a long time. A few years ago, he remembers growing concerned when his numbers slipped to 47.
Contrast Dillon’s experience with that of Mark Sgantas, chief of the Stowe Fire Department. Sgantas’ department has struggled in recent months to recruit and retain members. Right now, the Stowe Fire Department has about 25 people in its ranks, says Sgantas.
Waterbury’s official population, per the 2010 U.S. Census, was just over 5,000 people. Stowe’s population is just over 4,300.
Similar population size; double the firefighters.
The Waterbury Fire Department’s numbers are enviable the state over. Dillon remembers meeting with other fire chiefs around the state several years ago. He was asked, “‘How many do you have?’ And I told them and they said, ‘No, seriously,’ and I said ‘No, seriously. That’s what we have.”
In Dillon’s mind, it’s easier for his department to attract firefighters because Stowe has a lot of second-home owners, or people who moved to the area from out of state, although he acknowledged that Waterbury is beginning to attract more second-home owners too. They might not have the same family-based attachment to the community that the members of the Waterbury Fire Department do.
“They come here and they just want to make sure that they’re going to get the service that they expect when they go into a community, and we have people that move into our community and maybe they hear about us or they talk to other people, and give me a call or send me an email saying ‘I’m interested,’” Dillon said, whereas people who move into Stowe might not think of joining the fire department.
Waterbury is “a little more blue collar,” Sgantas said. He thinks because more people who work in Waterbury are able to live there too, they’re more able to be part of the fire department.
Another factor to consider: how many members show up to each fire call, on average. Sgantas says sometimes, half of his department shows up, and that can make a huge difference.
“I think we have a lot more second-home people that travel and come here, and those people don’t necessarily join the local fire department. … I’ve scratched my head many times trying to figure it out,” Sgantas said.
Dillon also thinks the training regimen the Waterbury Fire Department provides for its firefighters encourages people to join and stay. The fire department has access to a house in Waterbury that’s been turned into an obstacle course, filled with the type of challenges a firefighter might face in a burning building. Firefighters obscure their vision and fill the house with theatrical smoke to mimic the effects of a fire.
“We’re training to save ourselves and save others,” Dillon said.
At a training session, it’s not unusual to see Dillon, his wife or other senior officers teaching newbies how to put on their masks or hook themselves up to a safety rope before learning to bail out of a second-floor window. Dillon’s goal is to create an environment where volunteers feel as safe as possible, and have a little fun besides.
“There’s no ridicule” for people who are learning, Dillon said. He thinks that keeps them coming back, especially the younger ones.
Sam Grandfield, 17, will mark his one-year anniversary on the Waterbury Fire Department this November. His whole family has been on the department, so he grew up “training and being around the people” there.
He likes the hands-on aspect of fire department training, but acknowledged that school comes first.
If grades slip, a junior firefighter can face consequences, Sam said. He says students are required to maintain a C-plus average.
Sam plans to stay on the Waterbury Fire Department for a while. “You get to learn a lot of new things, and it helps you down the road,” he said.
Joe Raymond, 18, graduated from Harwood Union High School this year. He was 16 when he joined the Waterbury Fire Department. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all on the department before him, and he’d known since early childhood that he wanted to join, “to go out and help people.”
“I’ve always known these people,” Raymond said, gesturing to the rest of his company as they prepared to train in the obstacle course.
Colin Green, 16, is going into his senior year at Harwood Union High School and said “it’s kind of normal for kids to be on” the fire department. “It’s fun,” he said.
At 16, Jacob “Jake” Wells is as young as they’ll take them. He’ll go back to Harwood Union High School this fall. He joined the fire department in late January. His grandfather, father and brother were on the fire department, and Jake calls the Waterbury Fire Department “my second family.”
“It’s a cool experience,” Jake said. He likes meeting new people while learning new things and learning to give back to his community.
He has to work hard to make sure it doesn’t interfere with homework, but for him, it’s good practice — Jake plans to study fire service in college, so “that’s my motivation to focus in school,” he said.
“It’s always been a part of my life.”