Wanted: Firefighter recruits

Fire Dept. wants to encourage young people to join
Thu, 02/28/2019 - 5:30pm

“As the years go on, this job gets more and more difficult,” said Fire Chief Mike Ernst to a room full of veteran firefighters and a handful of teenagers at the monthly membership meeting of the Block Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department on Feb. 11.

“There’s a big gap between the younger guys and us,” Ernst continued. He meant the older members, many of whom have been active in the department for decades.

For that reason, the Fire Department is reviewing its bylaws, largely to address the members’ concern about bringing younger people into the department. Joe Sprague heads a bylaws committee charged with writing amendments to clarify the membership status and roles of “junior members,” firefighters under the age of 18.

Currently, the bylaws allow junior members to join the force at age 14, and then be voted into full membership when they reach age 18. Sprague asked for input on the members’ minimum age and voting privileges and whether the bylaws should allow junior members to go out of state for training. Other proposals would modify the age and experience qualifications for officers.

Foreman of the Drivers Peter McNerney said that the Block Island School is “supportive” of an internship program allowing high school students to join the Fire Department.

“I think the younger you can get them involved in the department, the better,” McNerney said. (His son Patrick McNerney is now a member.)

Liability issues were on the minds of several at the meeting. For instance, should the junior members assist at a fire scene, or should they be allowed to enter a burning building with other, more experienced firefighters?

“I want you guys there,” Ernst said to the teenagers, “but we all have to be safe.”

Treasurer Mike Lofaro recommended that Sprague and his committee prepare and circulate draft bylaw amendments before the next membership meeting.

Equipment and training

The BIVFD’s new fire engine, to replace Engine 1, is still in the “engineering” phase of design, according to Chief Ernst. Converting the current Engine 1 to a tanker would replace Engine 3, the oldest in the fleet (built in 1985).

Ernst said instead of spending $150,000 for modifications that would add 200 gallons of capacity to Engine 1, the Department should “scale it way back” to retrofit the vehicle with a shorter list of equipment, costing roughly $43,000. That price would not include addressing all the truck’s mechanical issues, he added.

In any case, “Engine 3 will have to go,” Ernst stated. He asked for the members’ ideas. No vote was taken.

The BIVFD plans to offer the “Firefighter I” training program on-island, likely in the fall of 2019. The course has been extensively updated since it was last offered here in 2007, with a total 120 hours of training now required.

Wayne Pinkham reported that he had passed the test to qualify as a Certified Fire Inspector-1, but has not yet begun work as the town’s inspector. He later told The Block Island Times that discussions are continuing between the Fire Department and Town Manager Ed Roberge about how to integrate his new duties as an Assistant Deputy State Fire Marshal with his current responsibilities.

The Fire Department’s next monthly membership meeting will be Monday, March 11 at 7 p.m. at the fire barn.