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Officials get inside look at Berlin Fire Company

New council members get facility tour, update on why service costs what it does

By Greg Ellison

(April 1, 2021) Berlin Fire Company leadership provided recently elected town officials an in-depth facility tour, including an overview of equipment and staffing needs, at operation headquarters at 214 North Main Street on Monday evening.

In addition to Mayor Zack Tyndall, also participating were council members Jack Orris, Jay Knerr and Shaneka Nichols, as well as Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood.

Fire Chief R.J. Rhode and President Dave Fitzgerald conducted the session, which started at the conference center and administrative offices located in the old library building at 220 North Main Street.

Fitzgerald said the conference center includes an ample-sized meeting room that also provides workspace for members or town officials.

“The previous room was a catch-all,” he said. “You had to walk through to get to our communication room.”

The company opened its headquarters building in 1965, and about two years ago the Main Street site was renovated with roofing and HVAC systems replaced, along with updating the previous glass front façade, Fitzgerald said.

“It leaked and was energy inefficient,” he said.

Berlin Fire leadership also offered an overview of equipment needs for first responders.

Besides fire-resistant boots, pants and jackets, Rhode said emergency responders are also issued task-specific hand protection.

“We have gloves for structural firefighting,” he said. “We have gloves for rescue work [or] dealing with rope or sharp metal.”

Rhode said other required gear for fire protection includes helmets and flashlights.

“Every member is issued the proper tools to keep safe,” he said.

To control overhead costs, in addition to purchasing gear to combat structural blazes, the fire company has also acquired equipment for other responses, such as rescue operations or wild land fires.

“For things that we do when the fire’s actually out,” he said. “It’s lighter and nicer.”

Rhode said non-structural response gear has proven advantageous for older volunteers who carry weighty air packs.

“It’s a huge difference in weight and cost,” he said.

Rhode estimated the cost at roughly $3,500 to outfit a responder for internal fire calls, compared to around $1,500 for the lighter gear.

“It’s a little less than half the cost of a structural set of gear,” he said.

Besides financial demands, Fitzgerald said the largest challenge continues to be recruiting, training and retaining volunteers.

“The training is the biggest deterrent for members,” he said.

To exacerbate staffing issues, volunteers are also required to earn points through participating in fundraisers and attending meetings.

“We do have some requirements to keep your active membership status,” he said.

On average, new fire company members are required to complete 400 hours of various training courses.

“It’s a big commitment,” he said. “Once you get through that training process [it] doesn’t stop [and] we try to make ourselves better by taking additional classes.”

Fitzgerald also noted that attracting younger residents to become fire cadets has not always resulted in success in building the ranks.

“We take them in with open arms because we need all the help we can get,” he said.

Fitzgerald said the initial welcome often turns bittersweet as many individuals later opt to leave the area or join other fire units.

The mayor and council members also reviewed large equipment assets, including 75- and 100-foot ladder trucks, a 4,500-gallon tanker and a heavy rescue decommissioned military vehicle.

Rhode said the military surplus truck was received with only one string attached.

“The only stipulation is that we have to return it if we’re not using it,” he said.

Not long after accepting the camouflaged truck, the military-grade gear came in handy to lend aid following a severe rainstorm that dumped more than a foot of precipitation in a few hours time.

“It actually sank a fire truck,” he said. “It provides clearance to reach areas otherwise inaccessible.”

Fitzgerald said the fire company was dealt an additional challenge last July after Berlin budget cuts reduced head counts for 24-hour staffing from four to three.

“Municipal companies need four people to keep 24- hour coverage,” he said.

In terms of fiscal matters, Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood questioned recent fire company fundraising campaigns, noting other area agencies have reportedly raked in larger sums to support operations.

While professing a lack of knowledge regarding other fire departments returns, Fitzgerald attributed the recently subpar sums to outside forces.

“Our past casino night was killed by Ocean Downs,” he said.

Fitzgerald said fire company officials are continuing to develop fresh approaches to bring in donations.

Tyndall said the town is open to all suggestions for engaging the community for financial backing.

“We’re here to help,” he said. “We want to be good partners.”