The ‘On Call/Volunteering’ Nature of the Williamstown Fire Department Is No Secret /

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Waterline inquiry, Lowry property, overlay district at Waubeeka Golf Links.

It was the recent “big” town gathering that came to mind when regular attendees thought about the recent gatherings that drew over 300 voters at large.

Tuesday’s special meeting of the Williamstown Fire District, which has the same constituents as the city government but is a separate tax authority, pulled 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 previous well-attended ones, did not feature lengthy debates or very narrow decisions. One question about a warrant of meeting passed by a landslide, 509-32, and the meeting took about an hour.

But the decision, while extraordinary, was not unanimous. And the discussion, while largely reflecting strong support in the room, did have some disagreements.

One of the most vocal critics of the station’s project on social media this winter went to the microphone to accuse Fire District officials of misinforming ahead of the vote.

Specifically, Scott McGowan challenged officials’ use of the word “volunteer” in describing the city’s firefighters.

“Mr. [David] Moresi keeps saying the Williamstown Fire Department is a volunteer fire department, but that’s not true,” McGowan said, referring to the chairman of the Prudential Committee that oversees the district. “You keep saying it’s a volunteer fire department, but it’s not. “

The district counsel immediately stepped in and advised the moderators to set aside McGowan’s comments as they were not on the issue on the table as to whether to allow tie-ins for the new station.

Despite requests from members of the district Development Committee to address the allegations, Moderator Paul Harsch followed the attorney’s advice and moved on to the next speaker to deliver the speech from the floor.

McGowan, who, to be clear, doesn’t regret any compensation to firefighters but makes a semantic argument, is right: Williamstown firefighters receive an hourly rate of just over $20 while they’re servicing the department.

But the payment is not a secret.

“Firefighters’ salaries” 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 voters. And the rate of payment is often a topic of discussion at general meetings of the Prudential Committee in preparing the annual budget.

The district’s single full-time employee said Thursday she was doing her best to make sure the true nature of the department was clear when she spoke about the men and women serving the city.

“If you listen to whatever I’ve done with [district’s Community] The Advisory Committee, in particular, right from the start, I’ve always called our department the on call/volunteer department,” said Fire Chief Craig Pedercini. “That’s who we are.”

Turns out that’s a lot of firefighters in small towns across the country 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 “all volunteer” or “most volunteer.” That number includes departments, such as Williamstown, where volunteer firefighters receive some form of compensation; sometimes it’s an annual salary, and sometimes it’s an hourly rate.

Current president of the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Fire Association, Mike Goldstein of Sherborn, said his department in the city of 4,300 outside Boston has a model similar to the one in Williamstown.

“We have about 50 plus members on our list,” Goldstein wrote in an email responding to a request for clarification about how common it is to pay volunteer firefighters. “Only the Chief and one noon lieutenant work full time. All of us (at least 50 of us) are called members.

“We get paid about $20/hour for fire calls. We don’t have shifts, per se.… But it would be classified as ‘mostly volunteer’ because if you have even one paid person (usually the chief), you are not a volunteer. Technically, we were called in because we get paid if we respond, and we are city employees; volunteers are not paid.”

Likewise, Williamstown firefighters are district employees and pay taxes on the money they receive for the time they work.

That’s not a lot of money.

There are 26 firefighters currently on the Williamstown roster. That “firefighter salary” line in the 2023 fiscal year budget is $45,500. Over the years, the district hasn’t consumed its entire budget, but there have been exceptions, such as 2021, when the city experienced the largest wildfire the state has experienced in two decades.

The number of hours a firefighter serves the department in a given year can vary widely based on the number of calls and the availability of assigned firefighters to respond at the time the call comes in.

Pedercini took snapshots of the period from December 2020 to June 2021, including the May 2021 forest fires. During that seven-month period, the WFD employees who recorded the most hours worked were included in 115 hours of service time.

That’s $2,300, before taxes are withdrawn, at $20 per hour.

Another five months, they might get something similar to that, but it’s up to the call, said Pedercini. “You have a structure fire, and you’re out for a few hours, it increases the number. Even if you double [the $2,300]that’s $4,600 for the whole year, but that’s provided the person responds to all calls.”

Looked at another way, the city makes a fortune spending $44,500 every year.

“For that amount of money, you might get 15 [firefighters] the average appears when summoned,” said Pedercini. “That’s 15 corpses.

“I don’t think I can hire even one firefighter with an allowance of $45,000. That’s probably in their salary range, but by the time you start throwing health riders and all that stuff into it, it’s definitely more than that.”

The several thousand dollars a year that every firefighter might make is barely enough to make a living. Most of the district’s on-call/volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs or are students at Williams College.

“When I joined the fire department, it was under Chief [Ed] McGowan,” says Pedercini. “I always remember sitting down with him and the company foreman and answering basic questions. Then they’ll tell you the same thing I tell my people now about the job and say, ‘You’re going to get paid. I think we were making $5.50 an hour or so, but that was 35 years ago.

“I remember Ed McGowan saying, ‘We pay you to go on the phones and stuff, but if that’s why you joined it’s not worth it. You’re not going to make a living off of it.’ “

Pedercini says the men and women who walk through the doors at Water Street stations are not looking for money and are usually surprised when they hear about hourly rates during the interview process. And there are department members who refuse to take checks.

“It’s good to know they’re not here to make money,” said Pedercini. “The flip side of that is that they’re effectively volunteering their time 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That’s a big part of it. You can interchange the word ‘volunteer’ and so on in a lot of ways. But they don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to answer the phone. They do it anyway.”

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