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In NH, a search for fire and rescue volunteers

Special to the Union Leader

September 27. 2012 12:36AM

According to the state's Division of Fire Standards and Emergency Medical Services, 80 percent of the fire departments in New Hampshire are volunteer or on-call departments, with the remaining 20 percent staffed by permanent firefighters.

Fire department officials in three North Country towns agree that it is not as easy as it used to be to recruit and retain on-call firefighters, but they are not just sitting on the sidelines and letting roster numbers drop.

In Lancaster, that means supporting a local Fire Explorer program. The program is for high school students 14 and up interested in a Fire/EMS career, the next generation of emergency responders.

'It's been effective,' Michael Kopp, assistant fire chief of the Lancaster Fire Department, said Wednesday.

He said the average age of department members is around 48. Lancaster has done better than some other towns at maintaining numbers because it is the largest town in the area, and the department often gets mutual aid calls, he said. That gives those who do respond a little more pay, and a little more experience.

Still, he said, 'It's not something you do for money.'

New Hampshire has three classifications of firefighters: permanent, paid-on-call and volunteer. Volunteers are just that, volunteers, with no compensation. On-call firefighters are paid per call, and for the time they train.

Littleton: Training

In Littleton, the high school's regional career and technical center offers a two-year program for juniors and seniors, through which students can earn their

Level I firefighting certificate. The minimum age for firefighters is 18; students can graduate and serve their communities.

Chief Joseph Mercieri of the Littleton Fire Department is optimistic about the program, which he said should pay off in the long term.

In the meantime, he said, 'everyone struggles' to keep and retain on-call firefighters. The department has six full-time and 19 on-call firefighters.

'It is hard,' he said. 'Recruitment is an ongoing process.'

Word of mouth works best in attracting members to the department, the chief said.

'You not only recruit the person, you recruit the family. They entrust us with the lives of their loved ones,' Mercieri said.

Mercieri said that a new training center, to be built in Bethlehem, will bring a much-needed resource to the North Country.

'That program is extremely critical to the success for the region,' he said. Asked how many more firefighters he would like on his roster, Mercieri replied, 'As many as I can get.'

North Conway: Incentives

The North Conway Fire Department has two full-time members, and an on-call force of 40. That's a pretty good number for a department that shares Conway coverage with departments in the town's other precincts, but Chief Patrick Preece said the department has seen a reduction in turnout.

'It gets tougher and tougher to maintain staff response,' he said.

Preece said the department offer incentives for earning training certificates. The base pay for on-call firefighters is $12 an hour. If a firefighter gets his or her EMT certificate, that's bumped up a dollar, and if he or she achieves a Firefighter 1 certificate, the pay goes up $1.25 an hour.

He said his department has a healthy mix of ages, but younger department members tend to leave the area for better jobs.

Candia: Community

Chief Dean Young of the Candia Fire Department said they have 40 on their all-volunteer roster. He does not get paid, nor do the other members. This year, though, the town approved a budget line to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses, such as gas, for those who respond to calls. The department allows residents of nearby communities to serve on the fire department, too.

'We do pretty good,' he said, 'We're able to make it work.' He added, 'It's not like the good old days' when people worked regular nine-to-five jobs. In many families, he said, husbands and wives work two jobs.

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Sara Young-Knox may be reached at

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