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Less fire volunteers

Hour Staff Writer

WESTPORT -- The day may have passed when there are a large number of volunteer firefighters, but the role of a volunteer may be changing.
Fire Chief Denis McCarthy said the department still recruits a small number of volunteer firefighters to augment the town's professional staff, but the pool is still very small.
"Most people who are volunteers are looking to join a professional department," he said. "The time of the lifelong volunteer is dwindling." Many volunteer firefighters in the past were able to derive an income from another source while responding to fires, but that cannot necessarily be done today, he said.
"We are finding that they want their (certification) and some training before they take a test to join a department," he said. "We have a fluctuating pool because many move on to be professionals. Darien is having the same difficulties." Additionally it is so expensive to live in Fairfield County, McCarthy said, that many cannot devote the time or money to be trained.
"This is a national problem," he said. "(The Federal Emergency Management Agency) has lent some support." The last time departments had a thriving corps of volunteers, McCarthy said, was in the mid 1970s.
The numbers have contracted since then, he said, and Westport has approximately 15 volunteer firefighters.
While the numbers have dwindled and it has been difficult to recruit new firefighters, he said, the department has been working with the Southport Volunteer Fire Department on developing programs.
"We're experiencing a nice growth because of that," he said.
But the role of the volunteer may also be changing towards people wanting to join the Community Emergency Response team rather than becoming a volunteer firefighter, McCarthy said.
The demographic of the volunteer firefighter used to be 25 years old and male, and they specialized in fire suppression, he said.
"We are changing the role so more people are involved and it can help us support our mission," he said.
Those who are involved with the team do not have to be 25 years old and male, he said. Women can be involved and so can retired residents, he said.
It gives a larger, more diverse group of volunteers, he said, that support the professional staff in their efforts.

The Hour Copyright 2003

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