Do you know who answers the call when you report a fire? The odds are good that it’s not a paid firefighter, especially in Liverpool. Indeed, all of the departments in the towns of Clay and Salina are 100 percent volunteer. There are no full-time, paid departments in the Liverpool area; instead, there are several departments staffed entirely by working people who devote their extra time to protecting and serving the community. Every one of those departments is constantly in need of more volunteers so that they can better help their neighbors.
We’re always experiencing a shortage, said Teri Holcomb, vice president of the Hinsdale Volunteer Fire Department in Mattydale. Response time is always an issue. That’s why we always want more volunteers.
Rick Jones, chief of the Mattydale VFD, agreed. Lots of departments are having problems, he said. We all need more people during the day. You know, people work, so they can only come in at certain times.
Moyers Corners VFD Chief Steven Bressette noted the urgent need in many departments for support personnel. We do pretty well with recruitment [of firefighters], he said. We really need administrative and support people – accountants to handle the books, secretaries to take care of the paperwork. That takes a huge load off me.
Several factors account for the need for more volunteers in local departments. First of all, the area is growing, attracting more people daily. This means that fire districts, though they cover the same geographical area, have more homes to protect. Secondly, the average life span of memberships has decreased in recent years. Bressette pointed out that, when his father was on the force, members stayed for 15 to 20 years.
Now the average age of membership is five to seven years, he said.
Bressette said that more parents are involved in their children’s activities and more mothers are working. Fathers are under more pressure to be home. This tends to keep them away from volunteer commitments like the fire departments.
Additionally, many department heads said that their communities don’t realize that they are completely comprised of volunteers.
All of the departments were quick to point out that their need for volunteers in no way reflects on their ability to protect the community. Indeed, all departments are sufficiently staffed to deal with emergencies in their districts. However, more volunteers would improve response time and ease the burden on existing members.
[Sending out the call]
In order to recruit and retain more volunteers, departments are undertaking several measures. Most have signs in front of their station houses alerting the public to the fact that they are volunteer and that they do need more support. They hold community-wide events to attract attention to themselves. Several also offer benefits to those who join, including retirement programs, pension plans and property tax breaks (provided by the state of New York to all homeowners who are volunteer firefighters).
The main thing is, we want people to know we are volunteer, said Chief John Loucks, who heads the Liverpool VFD. We give everything we can.
Holcomb echoed his sentiments and pointed out that volunteer departments keep taxes lower than town- or county-funded paid departments. Additionally, since all volunteers are community members themselves, volunteer departments maintain a stronger sense of community.
We’re very community- and family-oriented, she said. We’re basically a family. We have some third generation members. Their fathers and grandfathers were with us, and now we have the sons and daughters.
Jones agreed. Everybody’s kids, husbands, wives, they all get involved, he said. I’ve got four kids in the department or in juniors and my wife’s in the auxiliary. Other families are the same way.
Some local departments are taking on boarders to help in a crunch. Both Moyers Corners and Liverpool have bunk-in programs in which students from Onondaga Community College’s fire science program live in one of their station houses for a period of time and help to fight fires and deal with emergencies in that station.
They help us out a lot, Loucks said. They’re all trained as first responders or EMTs. They can take a portion of the daytime calls, which helps us with response time.
The younger generation can even get involved. Explorer Posts through the Boy Scouts of America offer would-be firefighters a glimpse at life in the department. Available to both boys and girls ages 14 to 21, the program offers training in fire safety and science and allows those 16 and up to become junior firefighters who go out on calls.
I wish more people knew about [the Explorers], Loucks said. These young kids are the future of our fire departments.
The departments also count on each other for help. Most area fires are fought by more than one department. Many departments share districts to better serve the population.
Again, the departments stress that no department is dangerously low on volunteers. They are still able to serve their communities. However, all departments are working on recruiting and retaining more members to better assist the areas in which they work.
[Our membership levels] go up and down, Jones said. We can always use more people, younger people.
Bressette agreed. We’re pretty rich with volunteers, he said. Our biggest things are making sure they have the necessary training and that we can retain more members. We really are giving the community the best we can.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.