Have you ever in your life put aside your wants and desires for the needs of a stranger? Would you anonymously help another person even if that meant putting yourself in harm’s way? And would you do it for no pay, over and over? If so, there is a job waiting for you at your volunteer fire station.
This coming weekend more than 500 volunteer fire departments across New York State will hold recruiting events seeking new volunteers. In Chenango County, at least seven fire departments will open their doors to lure in a new volunteer or two. Having to entice people to join is now the reality of recruiting in the volunteer fire service, not just in upstate New York, but all over the country. Our once collective sense of community has diminished from a point not too long ago when there were waiting lists to join a volunteer fire company.
The lack-of-volunteers-train has been rolling on the tracks toward us for a decade or so. We saw it first with a lack of personnel for volunteer emergency squads to respond to ambulance calls. The volunteers in emergency medicine were the first to be decimated by arduous training requirements and time commitments. We are now the point where the majority of ambulance response in Chenango County is provided by paid services. The volunteer fire service might be following right along on the same track.
Volunteer firefighters do much, much more than fight fires; they are first responders to all sorts of calamities, accidents, and emergencies. You name it, they probably do it. Lost children or hunters – check; Thunderstorm clean up – check; Flood damage recovery – check. All at a reduced cost because there are no salaries involved with this work. Imagine if we had to pay for all of the volunteer time.
Here are some fire department census numbers from the New York State Comptroller’s office which should get your attention. Around 90% of all firefighters in New York are volunteers. Approximately 10 million New York residents depend upon volunteer firefighters for protection. Volunteers protect about 47,000 of the 54,000 square miles which makes up New York State. Finally, according to the Economic Research Group, if New York’s volunteer firefighters were replaced with comparable protection by paid firefighters, property taxes in our state would increase an estimated $3.87 billion annually.
This weekend, participating RecruitNY fire stations offer an opportunity for almost anyone to get involved in a segment of local government which can repay you with reduced taxes and other incentives. I can’t think of any other government service which allows citizens to work; certainly, snow plowing or law enforcement won’t permit this in efforts to keep taxes low.
Don’t shrug this off thinking someone else will do it, because as the population around us dwindles, soon there won’t be that “someone” who steps up to volunteer to help neighbors in need. Exasperating the situation, our population is not only shrinking, but it is also getting older which means more needy people in times of emergency. In an attempt to make up for the lower number of fire volunteers, a few years ago Chenango County instituted “automatic mutual aid” which means when a particular department has a reported fire, that department’s neighboring fire companies are alerted to respond at the same time. Sometimes this mutual aid responds from outside of our county’s borders in order to get the needed manpower or equipment. But where does this end? From how far away should we expect a dependable response?
Hopefully people smarter than me are planning ahead for the shortage of volunteer firefighters. I don’t know what it is going to look like in the future, but we know if we want quality and dependable fire protection there must be changes – either paid service or consolidation of some fire departments. A saving grace to some of this dilemma is, with fewer people living in a particular fire district, there are probably fewer structures worth protecting.
Between now and this weekend think about committing to a position in the volunteer fire service. Know ahead of time, it won’t be easy – but few things worthwhile in life are. A good suggestion is to find a buddy to go along with you in this adventure, someone to lean upon and keep you focused. Our best case scenario would have a couple more generations of volunteer firefighters ahead of us, and our worst fear is wondering if the last volunteer firefighter has already been born.