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'Call/Volunteer' Nature of Williamstown Fire Department Is No Secret
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:04PM / Saturday, March 04, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The water line question, the Lowry property, the overlay district at Waubeeka Golf Links.
Those are the recent "big" town meetings that come to mind when regular attendees think about recent gatherings that attracted more than the typical 300 or so voters.
Tuesday's special meeting of the Williamstown Fire District, which has the same constituency as town government but is a separate taxing authority, drew 590 residents to decide whether to spend up to $22.5 million to build a new fire station on Main Street.
Despite the high turnout, this week's meeting, unlike past well-attended meetings, did not feature a particularly lengthy debate or an especially narrow decision. The one question on the meeting warrant passed in a landslide, 509-32, and the meeting took about an hour.
But the decision, though overwhelming, was not unanimous. And the discussion, though largely reflective of the strong support in the room, did have a couple of dissenting opinions.
One of the most vocal critics of the station project on social media this winter went to the microphone to accuse Fire District officials of providing disinformation in the run-up to the vote.
Specifically, Scott McGowan challenged officials' use of the word "volunteer" in describing the town's firefighters.
"Mr. [David] Moresi continually said the Williamstown Fire Department is a volunteer fire department, but that's not true," McGowan said, referring to the chair of the Prudential Committee that oversees the district. "You continue to say it's a volunteer fire department, but it's not."
The district's counsel immediately jumped in and advised the moderator to rule McGowan's comments out of order because they did not address the issue on the table, whether to authorize bonding for the new station.
Despite a request from a member of the district's Building Committee to respond to the accusation, Moderator Paul Harsch followed the attorney's advice and moved on to the next speaker in line to address the meeting from the floor.
McGowan, who, to be clear, was not begrudging the firefighters any compensation but making a semantic argument, was correct: Williamstown firefighters do receive an hourly rate of just more than $20 when they are in service to the department.
But the payments are not a secret.
"Pay of firefighters" is a line in the district's one-page annual operating budget, which the Prudential Committee sends each spring to the annual district meeting for approval by the voters. And the rate of payment is frequently a topic of discussion at the Prudential Committee's public meetings in preparing the budget each year.
The district's single full-time employee said on Thursday that he does his best to make sure the true nature of the department is clear when he talks about the men and women who serve the town.
"If you listen to anything I've done with the [district's Community] Advisory Committee, especially, from the beginning, I always referred to our department as a call/volunteer department," Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said. "That's what we are."
It turns out that's what a lot of fire departments are in small towns nationwide and across the commonwealth.
According to data on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website, 86 percent of the nation's 27,189 fire departments are either "all-volunteer" or "mostly volunteer." That number includes departments, like Williamstown's, where the volunteer firefighters receive some form of compensation; sometimes it is an annual stipend, and sometimes it is an hourly rate.
The current president of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Fire Association, Mike Goldstein of Sherborn, said his department in a town of 4,300 outside Boston has a similar model to the one in Williamstown.
"We have around 50-plus members on our roster," Goldstein wrote in an email responding to a request for clarification on how common it is to pay volunteer firefighters. "Only the Chief and one daytime lieutenant are full-time. All the rest of us (at least 50 of us) are call members.
"We get paid about $20/hour for fire calls. We do not have shifts, per se. …  But would be classified as a 'mostly volunteer' because if you have even one paid person (usually the chief), you are not volunteer. Technically, we are call since we get paid if we respond, and we are town employees; volunteers are unpaid."
Likewise, Williamstown firefighters are district employees and pay taxes on the money they receive for their time on service.
It is not a lot of money.
There are 26 firefighters currently on Williamstown's roster. That "pay of firefighters" line in the fiscal year 2023 budget is $45,500. In many years, the district does not exhaust the whole budget line, but there are outliers, like 2021, when the town dealt with the largest forest fire the state has seen in two decades.
The number of hours an individual firefighter serves the department in a given year can vary wildly based on the number of calls and the availability of any given firefighter to respond at the time those calls come in.
Pedercini pulled up a snapshot of the period from Dec. 2020 to June 2021, which included the May 2021 forest fire. In that seven-month period, the WFD employee who logged the most hours put in for 115 hours of service time.
That translates to $2,300, before taxes are taken out, at $20 per hour.
"The other five months, they may get something similar to that, but it depends on the calls," Pedercini said. "You get a structure fire, and you're out for several hours, that boosts the number. Even if you double [the $2,300], that's $4,600 for the entire year, but that's provided that person responds to all the calls."
Looked at another way, the town gets a big bang for its buck with that $44,500 expenditure each year.
"For that amount of money, you probably get 15 [firefighters] on average to show up at calls," Pedercini said. "That's 15 bodies.
"I don't think I could hire even one firefighter with benefits for $45,000. That's probably in the range of their salary, but by the time you start throwing in health riders and all the other things into it, it's definitely more than that."
The few thousand dollars a year any individual firefighter might make are hardly enough to earn a living. Most of the district's call/volunteer firefighters either have full-time jobs or are students at Williams College.
"When I joined the fire department, it was under Chief [Ed] McGowan," Pedercini said. "I always remember sitting down with him and the foreman of the company and answering the basic questions. Then they would tell you the same things I tell my people now about the job and say, 'You're going to get a stipend.' I think we got $5.50 an hour or something, but that was 35 years ago.
"I remember Ed McGowan saying, 'We pay you to go to calls and stuff, but if that's the reason you're joining, it's not worth it. You're not going to make a living at it.' "
Pedercini said that the men and women who walk through the door at the Water Street station are not looking to make money and usually are surprised when they hear about the hourly rate during the interview process. And there have been members of the department who have declined to take the checks.
"It's nice to know they're not here for the money," Pedercini said. "The other side of that is that they effectively volunteer their time 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That's a big part of it. You can spin the word 'volunteer' and so forth a lot of ways. But they don't have to get up in the middle of the night to answer a call. They do it anyway."
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