Brewster has hard time retaining trained firefighters who opt for full-time jobs elsewhere.
BREWSTER — The Brewster Fire Department has been a place for firefighters to get their start. It’s one of the only departments on the Cape that is split almost evenly between full-time career firefighters and call firefighters.
That combination has been a great way for new firefighters to get their foot in the door, but the department has had trouble holding onto staff, whether they leave for a busier town, to be closer to family or a host of other reasons.
The retention of firefighters has become a pressing issue for the department, and Chief Robert Moran voiced as much to the Select Board in June during his self-evaluation.
At that meeting he brought a picture of a recent swearing-in ceremony at the Harwich Fire Department. Five of the six firefighters in the photo had been with the Brewster Fire Department within the past 14 to 15 months, Moran said.
“Our problem here is really not a recruit problem,” he said in an interview earlier this month. Every year, people come to Brewster to become a firefighter. “We are, in this area, the region’s training ground ... because there is no other place for them to go. The type of fire department that we are, being a combination fire department, allows an individual to be hired here, work as a call firefighter, be trained and then get picked up by other departments.”
Call firefighters and career staff all are trained to the same level, and the department sponsors firefighters to go to the Barnstable County Fire Academy. The academy provides them with fire gear, a physical, books and insurance — thousands of dollars and time spent coordinating and scheduling.
Prospective firefighters then must go through six nights of in-house training to become acquainted with the department, Deputy Chief Kevin Varley said, plus monthly and shift training.
Brewster is happy to help train and invest in new firefighters, Moran said, but some of those investments haven’t been paying off in the long term.
“This retention issue is a problem for us,” he said. “Recruitment? Everybody wants to get a job. So that’s not the issue. It’s retaining those members.”
Brewster has 19 career firefighters, including the chief and deputy chief, and 15 call firefighters.
In the past year, the department has lost eight firefighters — six call and two career.
“These younger kids that come in here, it's great training, they get great experience, they get exposure to every surrounding fire department because we work hand in hand every day … so they get looked at by these other departments, and when openings come up there, they are going to apply,” Moran said.
He doesn’t fault them; they are looking for full-time jobs that Brewster can’t always offer. Moran said he’s happy for them, but it makes things tough with the constant changeover.
When an employee leaves, it takes a year to replace them and get the new hires up to speed, he said.
“It does tax us at times, in particular in the summer,” he said.
Most departments on the Cape have shifted toward either full-time departments or a professional department with a small number of call firefighters, Varley said.
That doesn’t leave much room for new firefighters to get experience, he said.
“When (other departments) are looking for additional staff they look at Brewster,” Varley said, because they all are certified EMTs, firefighters and have experience.
Career advancement seems to be the biggest reason staff go to other departments, the two chiefs said.
In the cases of the two most recent departures, one left for a larger call load and the other went to work for Harwich because a family member was the former chief.
Call firefighters generally have other jobs, which puts a strain on full-time staff and leads to an increase in mutual aid from other departments.
The call staff has been a “Band-Aid” on the staffing problem at the department, Varley said. The department plans to turn to the town for more full-time staff, possibly boosting the department to 24 full-time staff.
Moran doesn't want to eliminate the call staff and wants to keep those firefighters to back up the full-time staff.
“We are always going to need call firefighters here, but I can say that we certainly, based on the community’s needs and the services that we need to provide, we need to hire some additional career staff,” he said.
— Follow Ethan Genter on Twitter: @EthanGenterCCT.