There is no fire engine at the Hampden Meadows Volunteer Fire Company headquarters on Sowams Road.
Engine 4, which the volunteers drove to all sorts of emergency calls, was moved to the Barrington Public Safety Building a few weeks ago. The relocation of the engine signaled the end of nearly 100 years of service for the volunteer station.
“As of July 1 we have not been dispatching the volunteers to calls,” said Barrington Fire Chief Gerald Bessette, the leader of the town’s paid fire-fighting force.
Chief Bessette said the decision was a difficult one. He also said it was a long time coming.
For years, the volunteer department, like many similar departments across the region, has struggled to retain members and attract new volunteers. About 15 years ago, the Hampden Meadows Volunteer Fire Company, a force that had always been open only to Barrington residents, began accepting, even recruiting, non residents. But even that move was not always enough.
In recent years, the volunteer company was not always able to send firefighters to a call. This past winter when a destructive fire began tearing through a single-family home at the end of Colonial Avenue, only two volunteer firefighters responded to the call. Despite the station being located only a short walk away, Engine 4 never left its quarters.
“We’ve noticed it since Mitchell left,” Chief Bessette said, referring to former volunteer deputy chief Mark Mitchell. “He was Hampden Meadows.”
Mr. Mitchell led the volunteers for a number of years and was, in addition to being a firefighter, a tireless recruiter. After Mr. Mitchell moved out of town a while back, said Chief Bessette, the department’s manpower struggles seemed to increase.
“He was the catalyst that kept them running,” Chief Bessette added.
For many years Station 4 thrived, and during Mr. Mitchell’s years the department served as a strong feeder program to Barrington’s paid force and other full-time departments across the state.
Chief Bessette estimated that he had hired about 10 of the men who had started as volunteers at Hampden Meadows. He said they are good firefighters and learned valuable lessons while serving as volunteers.
But eventually the membership challenges at Station 4 were impossible to ignore. Chief Bessette said “there was no real reason to keep it going. There wasn’t any animosity. There’s nobody responding” to calls.
In addition, the volunteers had ceased to conduct their own training. Chief Bessette said the paid department had been offering some training for the volunteers for some time.
Chief Bessette has assured the town council, Barrington Town Manager Peter DeAngelis and the residents of Barrington, that the transition to a single fire fighting force in town will be “seamless.” He said Barrington has also established strong relationships with fire departments in nearby communities.
“We have mutual aid agreements with other departments,” he said.
For the fire that broke out months ago at a Colonial Avenue home, Barrington received assistance from firefighters in Seekonk, Swansea and Warren. He said neighboring departments are called to help with Barrington emergencies about 10 times a month.
What is next for Station 4?
Engine 4 has already been relocated to the Barrington Public Safety Building on Federal Road, and other equipment inside the Hampden Meadows Volunteer Fire Company station on Sowams Road will also be brought back to the paid department’s headquarters. Fire Chief Gerald Bessette said the building and grounds on Sowams Road belong to the volunteers. He said he was not sure what would happen to that property.
Full time force
The Barrington Fire Department has a staff of 24 full time firefighters and the chief. There are six men on each shift and there is minimum staffing of five firefighters. The department had been comprised of 20 firefighters, but in 2006 the force grew by four positions. Chief Bessette said he anticipated the staffing would remain the same unless there was a new demand placed upon the department, such as a new multi-unit elderly care facility. Owners of the former Zion Bible College property recently proposed just that, although the project is in its very preliminary stages.