Volunteer fire departments trying to boost numbers

Some local volunteer fire departments are trying to strengthen their numbers with recruitment drives.

Statewide, the number of volunteer firefighters has been edging up the last couple of years after falling from 110,000 to 85,000 between 2000 and 2010, a state association reported.

John D’Alessandro, programs coordinator for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, said volunteers are in high demand at many rural volunteer fire departments.

Berkshire Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Deb Finkle said she has seen numbers fall at her department in her six years of service. The number of volunteers dropped from roughly 45 members, the station’s maximum capacity, to 33 today.

The Berkshire department and others are hoping open-house events on April 26 will help boost their numbers. Several departments in the area are participating in the statewide Recruit NY effort.

The time and effort necessary to become a firefighter contributes to the difficulty in keeping numbers up.

Mike Martin, Berkshire fire chief, said a volunteer needs 92 hours of state-required training, not including specialized or department training.

“It is hours and hours of training you have to do a year because the state requires it,” Finkle said.

Scott Meyer, Berkshire Fire Department lieutenant, said he has seen changes in members’ responsibilities outside of the fire department, preventing them from being able to respond to fires.

Meanwhile, older recruits are leaving and departments face a challenge recruiting younger members.

The Mayfield Volunteer Fire Department is doing well with its numbers.

Mayfield Volunteer Fire Chief Phlan Hart said the department is at full capacity, with roughly 45 volunteers.

“We have probably 15 younger members; the rest of us are well above 40,” Hart said.

Hart said his district has a large area to draw recruits from. Some departments, he said, have a limited area.

Allan Polmateer, Fulton County fire coordinator, said there are around 520 volunteer firefighters across the county, and the numbers have been steady over the past 10 years.

Bruce Heberer, Fulton County deputy fire coordinator, said local departments face challenges.

“We have a lot of members who can do a lot of jobs, but we don’t have a lot of qualified firefighters,” Heberer said.

He said of the 500-plus volunteers, roughly a third are qualified to fight interior fires.

“We aren’t trying to turn anyone away, but we do need interior people who are capable of putting the equipment on and putting fires out,” Heberer said.

D’Alessandro said measures are being taken to increase recruitment, such as the RecruitNY program.

Established in 2011, RecruitNY is a joint undertaking by FASNY, the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, Association of Fire Districts of New York State, Volunteer Fire Police Association of the State of New York, and County Fire Coordinators Association of the State of New York.

RecruitNY was created to increase recruitment for volunteer fire departments. Fire departments conduct tours of their firehouses and fire apparatus, allow visitors to try on turnout gear, and provide visitor activities and stations throughout the firehouse. Members discuss the volunteer requirements and rewards that come with being a volunteer firefighter, as well as conduct demonstrations, answer questions, and let visitors know how to go about joining their fire department.

“Last year, nearly 600 departments in 59 counties across the state participated in RecruitNY, and we expect even more counties to get involved this year,” James A. Burns, president of FASNY, said in a news release. “We encourage departments to sign up to let their communities know of their participation. RecruitNY has proven a success in past years and is a key initiative to help bolster membership numbers so fire departments can continue to provide the optimum level of protection to their local residents.”

D’Alessandro said the program, now active for 2 1/2 years, has been a success, bringing recruitment up to 90,000 active volunteers.

“It enabled us to stop the bleeding,” he said.

Several local departments will be participating in the event April 26.

D’Alessandro stressed while volunteers are needed, they don’t all have to fight fires. Volunteers also can serve in supporting roles as well, he said.

Arthur Cleveland can be reached at acleveland@leaderherald.com.