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At a Moment’s Notice, Local Firefighters Race to Help Others

March 18, 2019
Firefighters extinguish a three-alarm blaze at Mr. Mike's Mini Mart in Ashburnham on April 20, 2017, that left the building heavily damaged. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE FILE PHOTO Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LUNENBURG -- Some join for the experience. Some join to start a career. And some join to give back to their community.

But whatever the reason, the men and women who elect to serve as a volunteer or call firefighters with their local fire department understand they are entering into a brotherhood of those who are dedicated to protecting the lives and property of others.

“We wouldn’t be able to function without them,” said Lunenburg Fire Chief Patrick Sullivan, adding that his department employs about 35 call firefighters in addition to six full-time employees.

He said the call firefighters, who typically have regular day jobs, carry a radio with them at all times and respond to calls if they are available. Most call firefighters are paid an hourly rate while on the job, while some are paid a regular stipend, according to Sullivan. A volunteer firefighter is usually an unpaid position.

Sullivan said his department is staffed around the clock with two full-time employees per shift, and that call firefighters provide necessary support whenever an alarm comes in. ”(The full-time firefighters) get the ambulance on the road and get the first fire truck -- with a very limited crew -- on the road but we still need all these call people to come back in and man the other apparatus, (and) take the second call or third call when they come in,” he said. “A small town like this couldn’t make do without having a call force behind them.”

Joe DiMucci has been a volunteer with the Templeton Fire Department since 1980. He said he wanted to join the department as a way to serve his community.

“It’s a good thing to do,” DiMucci said. ”(Volunteers) make up a big part of the fire department, especially in the daytime when most people have full-time jobs out of town, and not many people stay in town anymore.”

Michael Goldstein, who serves as vice president of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association (Region 3, which includes Worcester County), said there is a widespread need for residents willing to support their local departments.

“It’s very expensive to have a full-time fire department, and many smaller towns simply can’t afford it,” Goldstein said.

In the region he represents, which also includes the counties of Middlesex and Norflolk, Goldstein pointed out that only Fiitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Worcester, Milford and Marlboro had fully staffed, 24-hour coverage in their departments.

The upside, he said, is that smaller towns with lower budgets tend to have fewer fires than larger communities.

What are some of the requirements fire departments look for in volunteer and call firefighters? One of the most important is that you live in the community you’re looking to serve, according to Sullivan, who said his department typically responds to between 1,400 and 1,600 emergency calls each year.

“We need you to be able to respond and be back to the station in a timely fashion,” Sullivan said, adding that’s it’s also a good idea for potential volunteers to have at least a high school diploma and valid driver’s license. “And then, beyond that, it depends on the department. We’ll take somebody that has no experience and send them to the fire academy.”

The Massachusetts Firefighting Academy (MFA) has two campuses in Stow and Springfield, and provides fire training to municipal service personnel to cities and towns at no cost. The MFA offers a program for volunteer or call firefighters, and Sullivan said those wishing to attend must be willing to make a commitment with their time.

“It’s four months, two nights a week and every Saturday,” he said.

Graduates leave the academy with a certification and all of the basic skills they will need to work in a fire department.

Goldstein, who began volunteering at the Sherburn Fire Department a few years ago while he was in his 50s, stressed that many departments do not require call firefighters to attend the academy, and that there is plenty to do on the job beside battling flames, including responding to motor vehicles, investigating gas leaks, removing fallen limbs and wires from roadways, and pumping out flooded basements.

“We do a lot of things that aren’t just fighting fires,” he said.

DiMucci said he would recommend becoming a call or volunteer firefighter to anyone looking for a way to serve their community, but he cautioned that it is sometimes a challenging job.

“You never know what kind of call you’re going to go on,” DiMucci said, admitting that he enjoyed the job a lot more when he first started with the department. “I was probably stronger and more ambitious when I was younger.”

Still, DiMucci said he had no plans to leave the department anytime soon.

Goldstein said one of the aspects that initially surprised him while working as a firefighter was just how much of the job involved getting soaking wet.

“I had no idea how much of (the job) was related directly to plumbing,” Goldstein said with a laugh. “When you’re fighting a fire, you forget how much of it is hooking up hoses and pumping water from one place to another.”

He said that many smaller towns like his do not have pressurized fire hydrants, so getting water to where the actual fire is can sometimes be a challenge.

“The truck I’m in, for example, its job is to throw something into a lake, suck the water out, and pump it to the other trucks,” he said. “You definitely get wet.”

Sullivan said anyone interested in pursuing a career in firefighting should be prepared to have their lives disrupted at any hour of the day or night.

“You could be sitting down to dinner at home or at Christmas holiday, and if the tones go off, you need to be able to respond,” Sullivan said. “And that’s a challenge in today’s society with many people working two jobs, or if your kids are involved in sports -- it’s got to be something you really want to do.”

Sullivan said that decades ago, many residents would join the fire department out of an obligation to civic duty. These days, he said, more residents commute to jobs in other towns, and therefore spend less time in their own communities. So instead of seeing older residents choosing to serve at their local fire department, the town is seeing more younger people joining in the hopes of making a career out of the profession.

Sullivan said many firefighters who got their start in Lunenburg have gone on to join bigger departments across the nation.

“We had one guy who started years ago, (and) he just retired out of the Phoenix fire department,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had a lot of guys who have gone on to bigger and better things.”

Goldstein said he would encourage anyone who was even remotely curious about pursuing a firefighting career to go down and talk with their local chief, especially if they are an older resident.

“Your local department will be thrilled if you are a local resident and you go and talk to them,” Goldstein said, adding that prospective volunteers should be in reasonably good shape due to some of the physical demands of the job.

“But it’s not nearly as taxing as people have in their heads,” he said.

Goldstein said joining the fire department was a rewarding experience, and one that he would recommend to anyone interested in looking for a way to serve their neighbors.

“You’re joining a community of brothers and sisters that I really had no understanding of how strong of a community it is,” Goldstein said. “And these are people all over the world who will run into a fire. It’s pretty impressive.”

Follow Stephen Landry on Twitter @Landry17Stephen.