Legislation Aims to Protect and Attract Volunteer Firefighters

Small towns throughout Western New England rely on volunteer firefighters, but there’s a shortage. New legislation in Massachusetts aims to remedy the situation.

Fire departments that rely on volunteer and part-time firefighters say it’s harder to find and keep them. That’s according to Democratic State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli of Lenox, who says smaller towns with tight budgets often have a full-time, salaried fire chief, but have to recruit and train a fleet of volunteers.

“Just look at the small towns in Western Massachusetts, where we have an aging population, small populations to begin with. People who can haul that hose off that fire truck and climb those ladders and be knocking doors down and having extra weight on their body. I think there’s always a shortage.”

Pignatelli says he’s been trying to come up with ways to entice more people to become volunteer firefighters. One way, he says, is to help them keep their day jobs. He’s filed legislation that would bar their employers from firing them if they miss work because they were fighting a fire. Great Barrington Fire Chief Edward McCormick says that might help.

“Many firefighters do not work in the communities that they are fire fighters for so it is extremely difficult especially during the day time for departments to get people to respond to calls.”

The legislation also broadens responsibilities of part-time and volunteer firefighters. They would be excused to help with natural disasters, emergency medical response, and hazardous materials incidents. Pignatelli says his bill sets reasonable expectations for firefighters and their employers and he hopes it will encourage more to volunteer. The legislation has passed the House and now heads to the Senate for a vote.