Whether it’s fighting a factory fire on a hot summer day or a residential blaze on a frigid January night, Shelton firefighters work hard to protect the city’s residents and property.
“Every fire is challenging,” said Francis Jones, fire chief of the Shelton Fire Department.
The city has approximately 293 volunteer firefighters, making it the largest volunteer fire department in the state, Jones said. The department responds to 1,200 incidents per year, including both fire-related and rescue calls.
“Nobody is as big as we are,” he said.
The number of incidents has probably increased by a few hundred calls since 2008, said Jones, who took over as chief that year.
He attributes the increase to a growing population, more businesses coming into town and more residential fire alarm systems.
Because of the large number of firefighters, the department isn’t plagued as much as other towns are with shortages in fire coverage.
“Shelton is fortunate,” Jones said. “It’s a numbers game.”
Some volunteers work the day shifts when others are at day jobs, and others work night shifts.
“We have a very intense recruitment program,” Jones said “We’re doing OK. We have applications coming in every month.”
Ryan Mattioli, the department’s recruitment retention officer, said word of mouth, promotional flyers and information distributed at Shelton Day in October help to bring in new members.
“It’s a great organization,” Mattioli said. “It’s neighbors helping neighbors. Volunteers help out the community and make the department a big family.”
How it operates
The department encompasses four companies — Echo Hose Hook & Ladder No. 1, Huntington Fire No. 3, Pine Rock Park Fire No. 4, and White Hills Fire No. 5.
Each company is headed by an assistant fire chief.
Jones and Deputy Chief Tim Hongo oversee fire department operations on a citywide basis.
They and the chief officers — including the assistant chiefs, training and recruitment coordinator and quartermaster — receive small stipends.
The line officers, from captain on down to the firefighters, are volunteers, Jones said.
The fire department has about a dozen women members, he said, including Dolores Collings, a 35-year member who is the fire inspector in the fire marshal’s office.
A paid fire marshal and two deputy fire marshals round out that office, and the department also has an assistant chief of fire prevention.
The Board of Fire Commissioners is the administrative body of the department, and there is a junior firefighters program for ages 16 to 18.
The department receives the majority of its funding through the city of Shelton, Jones said, and each company also raises funds to support its operating budget and pay for parade and dress uniforms, equipment not funded by the city, and part of supplemental insurance.
Young people are eligible to join the fire department when they reach age 18, and a medical evaluation is part of the application process.
Once a member, the department pays for training and firefighting outfits.
“We are always actively seeking new volunteers,” he said.
Membership also has social benefits, Jones said, such as forging new friendships and participating in activities like softball games.
Jones has served in the department for 27 years, beginning as a firefighter and then advancing through the ranks.
In those years, he’s seen changes in several areas.
“There have been tremendous improvements in firefighter safety and training requirements,” he said, including thermal imaging cameras, rollover protection devices and bailout kits that allow firefighters to leap out of windows using ropes attached to their gear.
Training requirements now include 200 hours of hazardous materials operations training, he said.
Fire department members also perform water rescue, motor vehicle accident rescue and search-and-rescue operations.
The department has three marine units, and in addition to water rescue, members are trained in ice rescue and rope rescue.
In terms of fighting fires, there are challenges dealing with both new and old structures.
Valley firefighters are familiar with older buildings that have no fire stops between the basement and the attic, Jones said, allowing the flames to spread.
New houses are built well, but are constructed with lightweight wood.
“Once on fire, they fail quickly,” he said. “The risk of fire is still the same. The fires just spread in different ways.”
Jones said the most rewarding parts of his firefighting career have been “helping out our community and the camaraderie. I have a passion for fire service and being able to contribute and help my fellow citizens.”
Those interested in becoming fire department members may email Ryan Mattioli, recruitment retention officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit cityofshelton.org, or “like” the Shelton Fire Department’s Facebook page.