ELIZABETHTOWN — Volunteer fire departments in the North Country are nearing a flashover and for many local departments, there isn’t an extinguisher in sight.
The main accelerants are manpower and recruitment.
A generation of fighters are aging out of the profession and there’s no one waiting in the wings to replace them.
Other stressors are the same that curse other agencies across the region: dwindling budgets, a plummeting population and an increase in state mandates.
North Country departments have two additional strikes against them: Sparsely-populated areas make consolidation tricky and a paralyzed tax base makes it difficult to hire paid staffers.
To combat the situation, several local departments will participate in RecruitNY, a statewide effort this weekend by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) to recruit new blood by throwing open their department doors to showcase equipment, vehicles and otherwise engage the public and igniting an interest in civic involvement.
Isaac Guenther, Second Lieutenant of the Elizabethtown Fire Department, said while it’s in the nature of volunteer departments to deal with an ebb and flow of resources, it becomes a problem when firefighters are faced with the prospects that they might not have enough guys to man a truck.
Guenther said although his department has enough people to get the job done — about 30 people are involved in the organization — the real issue is maintaining a consistent flow of newcomers to replenish those that are aging out.
“The brain trust of experience and knowledge are getting older and in some places, are getting to the point where they can’t engage in the work of firefighting,” he said. “They just can’t focus as they did at a later time in their lives. We have a great crew, a dedicated crew, and we’re looking to bolster the people we already have.”
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, nearly 70 percent of the firefighters in the country are volunteers. Their numbers declined by over 18 percent in the past three decades while the call volume has nearly tripled.
Their average age? Forty-seven.
“Men in their fifties generally don’t join the department,” said Don Jaquish, Director of Emergency Services in Essex County. ”It’s a young man’s job, one of the most physically demanding jobs you can have.”
Jaquish, who has been a firefighter since 1972, said 70 percent of firefighter deaths are heart-related and it’s not uncommon to be fighting blazes for 12 hours at a time.
Asking the public to dedicate a significant slice of their time to volunteerism can also be problematic, he said, especially in the remote North Country where a single call can eat up a good portion of the day.
“We all work, we all have families and other obligations,” he said. “These aren’t simple jobs: you have peoples’ lives in your hands.”
John D’Alessandro, a FASNY official tasked with recruitment and retention, agreed and cited other factors in the drop-off of public interest, including misconception that recruits need prior experience (they don’t) and a perceived detachment from civic engagement.
For many small towns, he said, firefighting was a legacy that spanned generations.
“It’s just what you did,” he said. “In rural departments, you historically didn’t have a problem because there was always a farm team coming up. Many failed to realize there was a problem until the three 60-year-old guys getting on the truck saw there was no one coming up behind them.”
INCREASED STATE MANDATES
Tiffany Lee, the official who helps facilitate training across the 24 departments dotted throughout the county (26 if you count Saranac Lake), said she’s seen a “huge decline” in enrollment since she started the job in 2006, something she chalks up, in part, to increases in state mandated training.
The mandatory Firefighter I training is now at 100 hours and runs over three months, up from 80 a few years ago, while Firefighter II, the session that trains recruits in areas like arson awareness and other procedural and administrative fields, clocks in at 30 hours.
Lee said training is not only difficult from a recruitment standpoint, but also from a logistical angle:
“The instructors and specialists we have get paid part-time by the state, but they also have real life jobs,” she said.
Working around the schedules of hundreds of volunteer and part-time personnel often makes facilitating the workshops an organizational nightmare, she said.
Jaquish said while he doesn’t dispute that the training is crucial, it needs to be given in less time in order to make it less daunting.
In Wilmington, fire and emergency medical services are combined and the latter industry faces similar challenges.
Town supervisor Randy Preston was chief of the department for 14 years and has been involved in some shape or form for 37 years.
“People want to get involved, but 90 percent of the time, that’s the last time you ever see them,” he said. “[FASNY] can put on all the shows and seances they want, but until the state changes the regulations, it’s not going to work.”
D’Alessandro said while he recognizes the frustrations voiced by local officials, he said the job has become increasingly dangerous over the past 20 years due in part to different construction materials.
The rise in lightweight, synthetic and oil-based materials, he said, means that fires burn faster and hotter than they did before. This is in contrast to older brick and wood buildings, for example, that take longer to fire up and develop into potentially deadly situations.
“It’s one of those issues that hits rural departments harder,” he said. “The catch-22 is that training is necessary to keep firefighters safe — it’s just one of those things inherent in the job.”
The training issue also ties into manpower, he said. It’s easier to send a contingent away for training if you have a bigger pool from which to draw, something that would allow departments to plan more effectively and better allocate their resources.
OPENING THE BAYS
Despite these challenges with no easy solutions — creating a blend of paid and volunteer staffers is often difficult for cash-strapped fire districts working within the tax cap — local departments hope the campaign on Saturday, April 26 will spur interest within the community.
“We’re going to throw the doors open and give folks the opportunity to look at our equipment,” said Guenther.
Individual fighters might have their gear out and will try to provide encouragement to newcomers.
Other participants include departments in Jay, Keene Valley, Keene, Mineville, Moriah, Port Henry and Schroon Lake. All will put their own personal spins on the event, from a jaws of life demonstration and thermal imaging exhibitions in Jay to CPR training sessions augmented by an easter egg hunt and bake sale in Keene.
Both Guenther and D’Alessandro were quick to dispel the notion that all department-related positions see staffers on the frontlines of emergency situations, a viewpoint that has traditionally held recruiting efforts back.
“There are dozens of other jobs in departments that are absolutely critical to functioning, from administrative to maintenance” said D’Alessandro.
“You don’t need to be the firefighter running into a burning building,” said Guenther. “Anyone who lives in the town of Elizabethtown, including women, high school students and children, are welcome to come and find out whether it’s the right thing for them — volunteer departments can never have too many people.”
GET INVOLVED ON SATURDAY, APRIL 26
Elizabethtown Volunteer Fire Department, Woodruff St.
Jay Fire Department, Route 9N
Keene Valley Fire Department, 15 Market St.
Keene Volunteer Fire Department, 10858 Route 9N
Mineville/Witherbee Department, 121 Raymond Wright
Moriah Volunteer Fire Department, 630 Tarbel Hill Rd.
Port Henry Fire Department, 14 Church Street
Schroon Lake Volunteer Fire Dept, 28 Industrial Drive