Recruitment, retention key to Shelton FD's volunteer success

SHELTON — With many volunteer fire departments in the state struggling to increase or even maintain membership, Shelton continues to buck the trend. 

The Shelton Fire Department — with four companies — stands at 244 volunteers, more than enough to handle a growing population and more complex developments, particularly downtown, according to Assistant Fire Chief Mike Plavcan, also the department’s head of retention and recruitment. 

“We are at full force here,” said Plavcan, adding that the department sees as many as 10 new applications every month. “With the staff we have now, rarely do we utilize mutual aid unless it’s a structure fire or a special circumstance.” 

Deputy Fire Chief Paul Wilson said the increased infrastructure and call volumes are not affecting the organization, which averages 8 to 10 members for a fire alarm. 

Overall, Plavcan said fire calls this year stand at 1,200 citywide. He said he expects the final tally through the end of the fiscal year in June to be about 1,400 across the city — spread across Echo Hose, Pine Rock Park Fire Company, Huntington No. 3 and White Hills Fire Company. 

While the department’s force remains steady, Plavcan said fire officials are continually on the search for new recruits. The department uses social media, yard signs, ads on place mats in local eateries, and an LED traffic sign, which is moved around the community, to spread the word. 

“We have other departments reaching out to us asking about our recruitment strategies,” said Plavcan, a 17-year veteran of the Shelton Fire Department and now a career firefighter in Norwalk after six years in Milford. “We must be doing something right.” 

Among the incentives offered members are free training and equipment, a retirement pension program, access to a fitness center, gas cards, department apparel, and the chance, Plavcan says, to build strong relationships while aiding fellow citizens. 

The other benefit, he says, is maintaining a volunteer force for the community of more than 41,000 — per the 2020 Census — allows for keeping Shelton’s taxes at one of the lowest in the state. 

"We do everything in house — all the training. And the city covers all our costs,” Plavcan said. “The city is very generous.” 

For the present fiscal year, Finance Director Paul Hiller said the city budgeted $1.14 milloion for the Shelton Fire Department, with money covering such costs as pension benefits and life insurance for the volunteers. The city also budgeted $320,967 for the fire marshal’s office, not including health benefits for two full time employees or pension benefits. 

By comparison, Stratford, with a career force, budgeted $11.8 million, not including health insurance benefits and pension contribution; Westport, with four fire stations, budgeted $9.9 million, including health and pension benefits; and Fairfield, budgeted $14.5 million, not including health insurance benefits and pension contribution. 

"Under any circumstance we’d be looking at a large increase in the budget,” Hiller said about if Shelton ever had to go to a paid force. 

Plavcan referred to his old force in Milford, a city of some 55,000 people. Milford’s department has 116 personnel (firefighters and civilians) with a total operating budget of $11.6 million for the fiscal year 2022-23. The regular wages line item is $9.3 million. Including overtime, it’s $10 million. 

“The salary and tax benefit are huge,” Plavcan said. “Our budget is comparable to Milford’s, minus the salaries.” 

Wilson said Shelton is one of the largest cities in the state to still have a volunteer force. And one of the Shelton Fire Department strengths is the number of career firefighters, such as himself, a longtime firefighter in New Canaan. Fire Chief Francis T. Jones is also a career firefighter in East Hartford. 

Others are from Fairfield, New Haven, Bridgeport and East Haven to name only a few. Wilson said they also receive applications from people living in surrounding communities. 

"We are fortunate to have these guys around, and they are active members,” Wilson said. 

Wilson said the department has remained on top of the burgeoning development, which includes numerous multi-story apartment buildings, most of which are built, being built now or in the planning stages in the resurgent downtown area, particularly Canal Street. 

The department retains a “pre-planner,” who inspects the larger buildings and offers plans to attack fires in the structures. Wilson said the department volunteers then do their own regular walkthroughs on a regular basis to maintain readiness. 

“We take pride in providing the best service we can. That means staying on top of training and planning,” Wilson said. “It is about taking the extra initiative.” 

Those applying are given a background check, a medical screening and an informal interview. Each company has its own voting process based on those checks. Once officially in, the department gets the volunteer their equipment. 

New recruits then take classes on handling the trucks and equipment. Each recruit is then required to take Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 training — all provided by department personnel. 

“The city covers everything,” Plavcan said. “The only thing we request is a person’s time and dedication."