This weekend, fire departments in Perinton and East Rochester will join hundreds across the state in hosting volunteer recruitment events as part of the RecruitNY initiative, which comes at a time when departments, both locally and nationally, are struggling to keep volunteers.
David Jacobowitz is the president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) and has worked in fire service for 41 years. He said that although the majority of fire departments are staffed by volunteers, it’s become more difficult to keep these numbers up due to members’ other economic demands.
“We’re finding that there aren’t many first responders around during the day because of their jobs and the economy, so it’s difficult to have a good response sometimes,” said Jacobowitz. “We say ‘volunteer,’ but being a firefighter is a full-time job.”
Looking at cost
A recent study by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that 70 percent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers.
Why can’t the state compensate volunteers? Financially, Jacobowitz said this option is not viable on a large scale as the cost of retirement and benefits creates added strains, especially for smaller departments.
In 2003, FASNY researched the potential cost of switching from volunteer to paid staff, and found that this would cost the state an additional $8 billion. The state Legislature has tried to offer incentives for active volunteer firefighters and ambulance corps members by offering a $200 income tax credit.
Still, many departments struggle to keep their membership up, and have been working to make their outreach efforts more effective.
All in the family
East Rochester will host an open house at its fire department on Sunday. It’s the first year the department has participated in RecruitNY, and Chief Steve Williams said he hopes this will address the recent decline in public participation.
At present, the crew is staffed by 51 volunteers.
“We’re not down significantly, but enough where we need to be actively recruiting volunteers,” said Williams.
For him, the neighborhood fire department was part of his life from a young age. His father and grandfather both served as fire chief, and Williams joined the Explorer program as a teenager. He later joined the force as an active volunteer firefighter after high school.
These days, such stories are becoming more rare.
“People have so many things going on, and there is a commitment you have to make as far as time goes,” he said.
In small communities, this has resulted in a general increase in the average age of volunteers. According to the NFPA, the national trend shows that there are more firefighters ages 50 and up in smaller communities, while larger municipalities have a greater number of firefighters between ages 30 and 49.
Page 2 of 2 - Statewide, Jacobowitz said, there has been an increase in the number of retirees joining the ranks.
“By the time a person retires, they have more time and can be more dedicated because there isn’t as much pulling on them in all different directions,” said Jacobowitz.
Some say this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In Fairport, Fire Chief John Welker said the department seldom recruits outsiders because it has a surplus of local volunteers. The department is staffed by 99 active members, 17 of which were added in 2011 alone.
Welker said that there are many father-son combinations who make up the staff — many who are long-time residents. As a result, there has been a generational cycle of willing volunteers.
“It’s a great problem to have,” said Welker.
As times have changed, so have departments’ methods of reaching out to the community.
Although recruitment days are a big draw for those interested in signing up, the Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department promotes itself year-round through outdoor neighborhood drills with trucks and equipment in places like church parking lots or public parks. It also holds open houses at the station on weekends during the year.
Chief Greg Gulick said that these sorts of demonstrations may spark the interest of new firefighters, but the web and social media are useful tools for drawing those with previous experience in the field.
“The person that’s done it before is more likely to go on the Internet,” said Gulick. “They know who we are and seek us out through (the Internet).”
The first step for new recruits is to become certified. The vast majority of departments require their staff to take the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification course that teaches safety drills and other necessary response skills.
Although challenging, it’s a field that hopes to add to its ranks this weekend.
“if we get one member, it’s a positive for us,” said Gulick.