Conn. volunteer FFs become inactive, donate 111-year-old firehouse to town
Hamden's career firefighters will continue to staff the Whitney Avenue firehouse
By Meghan Friedmann
New Haven Register
HAMDEN, Conn. — For the last few years, Mark Guarino has been the only active member of the Mt. Carmel Volunteer Fire Co.
Given its declining enrollment — part of a nationwide trend of dwindling volunteer firefighter numbers — the organization is officially going inactive after 111 years. Its members hope that by donating their Whitney Avenue firehouse to the town, the company's legacy can live on.
Officials said the change will not affect service or response times; currently, Hamden's volunteer firefighters only respond to brush fires, water disruption events and downed wires, said fire Chief Jeffrey Naples.
Increasing call volumes mean Hamden's needs typically are better met by career staff, according to Naples. Because volunteers may need to drop what they are doing at home or at work to get to a fire scene, he said, their response times can be longer.
The building donation will, however, allow Hamden to continue to house career firefighters on northern Whitney Avenue; though it is owned by the volunteer company, town firefighters have long operated there as part of Engine 5.
"Now we can ensure that we are not going to lose that location to house our career staff truck," Naples said, adding that Engine 5 serves 9,000 residents and responds to about 1,100 calls per year.
Still, some longtime members have found it difficult to say goodbye to Mt. Carmel's days of volunteer firefighting.
"It's tough. It's very tough," said Dave Johnson, the secretary for the Mt. Carmel Volunteer Fire Co. "It really bothers me to think that, yeah, this institution that provided fire protection for Mt. Carmel, that was so much a part of our lives ... is going out of business."
In a way, volunteer fire companies are the vestige of a bygone era when most of the town's firefighting was done on a volunteer basis and the companies were critical to the social fabric of the town.
Volunteer owned-and-operated fire stations predated the town's career fire department, according to Johnson, who also serves as the historian for the town and the Hamden Fire Retirees Association.
The fire department wasn't a government agency in Hamden until 1925, at which point the town already had seven volunteer companies, Johnson said.
Just two of those companies — the Mix District and Dunbar Hill volunteers — remain active.
The Mt. Carmel Volunteer Fire Co. was founded in 1912. Johnson joined in the 1966, he said, remembering the organization as a social hub with many members in their teens and 20s.
"It was a hangout, you know, we'd play cards with the paid guys," he said. "It was the place to be if you didn't have a date."
Many of the volunteer companies were still thriving in the 1980s, when Johnson estimated there were about 60 active volunteers across town. Johnson, who went on to become a career firefighter, was then serving as the Hamden Fire Department's training officer.
As new forms of entertainment emerged to occupy young adults' time, Johnson said, the companies' importance as social hubs declined.
Yet some members have stuck around for decades. Gilbert Spencer, who joined the Mt. Carmel volunteers in 1952, holds the record as the longest-serving continuous member of a volunteer fire company in Hamden, according to Johnson.
At Mt. Carmel, about 10 members still attend company meetings, Johnson said. But only one volunteer — Guarino — is able to respond to fires.
The company's current president and captain, Guarino said he joined in 2007, when the organization had "at least eight to 10 other active members, and the other two companies were somewhere around those numbers."
Over the past four years, the organization has really struggled with enrollment, according to Guarino, who said many members moved out of town or were hired by career departments.
Though the Mt. Carmel company engaged in recruitment efforts at town events, it had trouble attracting new volunteers, he said.
The physical demands of the job and the costs associated with training may deter potential recruits, he said.
"It's physically demanding and honestly, to go through the training if you're not going to do it as a career, it costs money," Guarino said.
Over the years, the training requirements for volunteer firefighters have become more extensive, according to Johnson.
When he joined in 1966, he could have gone to a fire the same night, he said.
"That's not the way it's done today, and that's not the way it should be done," Johnson said, noting the training requirements represent an improvement and are important for safety reasons. But they also mean there are more impediments to becoming a volunteer firefighter.
Mayor Lauren Garrett said the COVID-19 pandemic also brought a sharp decline in volunteer enrollment.
"COVID really put kind of a damper on volunteer fire organizations," she said. "A lot of it had to do with, you know, people didn't want to come in contact with other people, obviously."
During that time, volunteers also were not allowed to gather at the firehouses, Garrett said.
(Guarino said he does not think COVID-19 had a big impact on the Mt. Carmel Volunteer Fire Company, which he said was struggling prior to the pandemic.)
Guarino, who also volunteers with Hamden's two other companies, said there are about 10 active members between them, including some newer recruits.
Those companies are looking to stay afloat by joining forces, he said.
"It's sad. It's a shame that there aren't enough people that want to volunteer" for the Mt. Carmel company, Guarino said.
Its current members, however, believe their predecessors would have approved of their decision to give the firehouse to the town.
"We're trying to do something for the legacy of the company, to keep our commitment going," said Karl Olson, the company's vice president.
The donation of the station is an example of the "public-spiritedness of our volunteers," said Johnson. "It's important that (community members) know that this is coming from our heart."