Politics

Study backs a regional approach to Northeast Kingdom fire departments

St. Johnsbury fire truck
The St. Johnsbury Fire Department’s fleet of equipment could become part of a regional approach to firefighting, a new study says. Fild photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

A new study recommends several Northeast Kingdom towns build a hub-and-spoke model for regional firefighting to the tune of $1.6 million.

The system would take shape between now and July 2027, according to the report from Municipal Resources Inc., a New Hampshire-based consulting firm. 

And in at least one cost-sharing proposal, St. Johnsbury could pay for more than half of the estimated price tag.

The report sprang out of a $31,000 state grant St. Johnsbury and Waterford received in December 2019 to examine the feasibility of sharing fire services among area towns. Staffing problems among fire departments in the area led them to consider regionalizing. 

Barnet, Concord, Danville, Groton and Lyndon all signed on as additional participants in the study.

The report outlines three ways the towns could go about regionalization.

The most costly option would be to form a single regionwide department. But “the political challenges with this model far outweigh any advantages,” and the logistical challenge of getting approval from each local government “would take a significant period of time,”  the study says.

A second approach would be to conduct training and develop policies on a regional basis. The study concludes that option “will do little, if anything, to improve on response times, response levels and, more importantly, to improve the actual services being delivered.”

So the study authors recommend instead that the departments try a hub-and-spoke model — the same framework used in Vermont’s medication-assisted treatment program for people with opioid use disorders. 

A hub-and-spoke model resembles a bicycle wheel, with the hub at the center; spokes extend in all directions from the hub. Local fire departments would act as the spokes, and a regional organizing body would be the hub.

The “semi-regional” model would maintain individual fire outfits in each town while providing regionwide training, coordination and a rapid-response unit. It would also make available extra personnel on a reserve basis. 

Communities would be able to choose which services they wanted, according to the study. 

“I think they’re definitely interesting,” St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead said of the proposals, adding that he supported the hub-and-spoke model. “We should continue to evaluate how that will apply here in St Johnsbury. Hopefully we can gain support with our neighboring towns.”

The report recommends a phased approach to building the system between May 2021 and July 2027. Under the proposed timeline, an official association, fire district or other organization would be formed in January 2024. 

One phase — proposed to begin between July and December of next year — could involve some departments merging staffs in one-year trial periods. Those departments would respond to emergencies as one unit but maintain their own stations and equipment.

“For example, if Concord and Barnet merged, they would increase available staffing, decrease response time to emergency incidents (and) add additional response resources to the emergency,” the study says.

The seven phases would cost an estimated $1.57 million. Cost-sharing could be based on population alone, dwelling units or call volume, or a combination of the three. If the costs were divvied up by call volume alone, St. Johnsbury would pay 54% of the total, or about $54,500. 

Asked whether townspeople would support bearing the majority of the costs, Whitehead said it will depend on how the rest of the town budgets play out. He suspects some costs can be saved through equipment sharing. 

Consultants from Municipal Resources Inc. are slated to host a presentation on the study via Zoom on May 27. The meeting, organized by the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, will be open to the public. 

After the presentation, towns will have to decide whether they want to adopt the plan, Whitehead said. He said his town selectboard members could take up that question around budget-preparation time in the fall. 

“It’s going to be difficult if only one or two towns are thinking this is the direction we want to go in,” he said. “Building consensus is going to be the next step.”

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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