All across the country, men and women volunteer to help others on their worst days.
In Onondaga County in particular, most of the fire departments and EMS services are staffed entirely by volunteers. In order to keep those agencies staffed, fire departments across the state will hold open houses this weekend to encourage residents to volunteer for the fire service.
The state-wide recruitment drive, Recruit NY, will be held April 27 and 28 at the tail end of National Firefighter Week. Nearly all departments will open their doors to anyone interested in learning more about how the departments operate or how to apply to be a member. The program aims to bring fresh faces to the departments and to showcase what local departments are doing. The events will include opportunities to speak to firefighters, try on turnout gear and breathing apparatus, obstacle courses and more.
“We have many different members present — young, older, men, women — to discuss with those interested of how their process works and how there is a need for everyone [to handle] different job tasks,” said Cicero Fire Chief Jon Barrett. “The volunteer fire service is in need of members; there are several different tasks whether it be EMS/fire duties or duties back at the station.”
The majority of fire departments in Onondaga County are 100 percent volunteer, said George Davenport, a Manlius resident and chairman of the recruitment committee for the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York. Davenport first started Recruit NY in Onondaga County, where 52 of the 57 departments in the county participated. FASNY has since taken the drive statewide. The drive is conducted in an effort to reverse a nationwide shortage of volunteers; without volunteers, municipalities would have to contract with paid departments.
“People volunteering are saving millions of dollars,” Davenport said. “If you didn’t have the volunteers, you would have to be paying them.”
Each volunteer on the fire protection or EMT side saves municipalities thousands of dollars — nationally, volunteers save the nation about $37.2 billion in costs that would have to be paid to career staff.
“It’s an important need in the community,” said John Perkins, chief of the Moyers Corners Fire Department, which covers 31 square miles in the town of Clay. “If no one volunteers, the alternative is a paid service. A lot of communities can’t afford paid service, so your coverage goes from good to little or none if no one volunteers.”
And the need has never been greater. As communities like Cicero and Clay grow, there aren’t enough volunteers to serve the population.
“We need more volunteer firefighters and EMTs to continue providing the high level of service to the community that we have always provided,” Perkins said.
“We need new members to groom the firefighters of tomorrow,” Clay Fire Chief Tim Dickerson said. “It’s an important part of keeping our community safe.”
There are many benefits to volunteering, according to local chiefs.
“It’s interesting work,” Perkins said. “You get to meet new people. A lot of our members have gone onto various careers related to the fire service, whether it’s career fire departments or different careers like code enforcement, engineering and such.”
South Bay Fire Department First Assistant Chief David VanNamee agreed that the service instills skills for a multitude of occupations. South Bay covers the town of Cicero.
“The department offers skills and knowledge for career development,” VanNamee said. “I started and progressed in my career through the skills and knowledge made available by being in the fire service. That the fire service has taken me to a higher standard in life and opened plenty of doors for succession.”
Departments also offer monetary benefits.
“We offer free training, free turnout gear, programs for college tuition assistance and various tax incentives,” Dickerson said. “Many department activities are family-oriented so everybody can attend and get to know each other. There are opportunities for everybody. They just need to contact us.”
Joining the fire service doesn’t just provide an occupational bonus, but a camaraderie that can’t be found anywhere else.
“The training you receive, the pride and dedication the members of the Cicero Fire Department speaks for itself,” Barrett said. “Once you become a member, you are now a member of the firefighting family for life.”
That bond, coupled with the benefit of helping people in their darkest hours, keeps many men and women in the fire service.
“The best part is the life-long friendship created and the feeling you get helping people in their time of need,” Dickerson said.
“It’s an important vocation,” Perkins said, “and we need to have people who are willing to do it.”
For information about your local department, visit recruitny.org/community.php?page=onondaga&submit=Go.
Amanda Seef contributed to the reporting for this article.
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.