CHINA — The Board of Selectmen at a Thursday morning meeting approved an agreement to pay stipends and hourly wages to emergency responders in the town, who up to this point have volunteered their time for free.

The reimbursement plan provides annual stipends for fire chiefs and officers, as well as a $10 hourly wage for firefighters and emergency responders.

At Town Meeting in March, voters approved appropriating $40,000 from the town’s undesignated fund balance to compensate emergency responders for the year.

While some of the officers hope this will help with recruiting or retaining volunteers, others were skeptical of the idea, which originally came from Neil Farrington, chainrman of the selectmen.

China has three fire departments and one rescue service, which operate independently of the town with their own budgets.

Dick Morse, who is the fire chief for the South China station, has said he doesn’t think providing a wage or stipend will help the departments get more volunteers.

In a previous interview, he said he doesn’t think it’s about money.

“One of the big problems is the commitment that volunteers have to make today for training,” Morse said. “It might be fine for a larger department, but it’s hard for volunteers to keep up with. You couldn’t pay enough of a stipend to make up for that.”

The fire departments and rescue service will bill the town twice per year and will receive the hourly pay for calls, inspection duties and training. Additionally, chiefs will be paid $1,000 annually, deputy and assistant chiefs will be paid $500 annually and other officers will be paid $250 annually.

David Herard, chief of the China Rescue Squad, said he thinks the funding is a good idea.

“It’s a long time coming,” he said. “Membership on rescue is surprised that this has happened.”

Rescue has tried to get stipends before, he said, but failed. The rescue division receives the most calls out of all the departments, responding to 278 last year.

While Herard said he doubts the money will help grow membership, he hopes it will help retain the seven people he has right now.

It’s hardest to get people to respond to calls during the day because most work, Herard said, so ideally he would like to get more retired people on the rescue team.

Tim Theriault, fire chief for the China Village station, said during the meeting Thursday that the goal is to shift the pay structure into an annual budgeted item. Because the money was taken out of the undesignated fund, it will expire at the end of the year.

If the experiment proves successful and the departments see a higher response to calls or an increase in recruitment, it would be built into the annual budget.

When the selectman looked over the proposed reimbursement plan from the departments, Selectwoman Joann Austin said she was surprised to see separate stipends for officers and suggested putting a cap on officer pay.

“To me the premise had been to compensate people putting lives on the line,” Austin said. “It was just different in my head.”

Theriault said the structure is important and similar to the military.

Morse also pushed back, saying that the departments are “organized the way we feel we should be organized.”

Morse also opposed paying emergency responders because of “the bureaucracy of trying to make this happen simply,” he said. He expressed concern over the language in the memorandum of understanding, a legal document that explains the agreement between two parties, which the selectmen voted to approve Thursday.

Morse and some other members of the fire departments are concerned that the agreement and cash flow from the town will hinder their independence, but Town Manager Dan L’Heureux said the memorandum explicitly states that “each department is independent” to assure that won’t happen, among other things.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour