Departments face a lot of challenges. Many small towns have fewer and fewer young people.
Training demands have grown over the years.
As Chris Morris reports, the region's fire chiefs are organizing to try to rebuild the tradition of service.
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Sitting at a table at the Blue Moon Café in Saranac Lake, Keegan Muldowney takes a break from his meal and recalls that his desire to volunteer and help his community was sparked at an early age.
Keegan’s parents have volunteered as coaches for local sports teams, and he and his siblings have done the same. It’s just something that you do, he says.
But he says his decision to become a volunteer firefighter had a more personal meaning.
“I’ve had a lot of people in the fire service in my family,” he said. “I lost a cousin in 9/11 who was FDNY. That really hit home. After that, I felt like it was my turn in my family. So as soon as I was able to, I joined the fire department.”
And what Keegan calls volunteering, others may view as a full-time job. He currently works for the Lake Placid Police Department as a parking enforcement officer, helps out at the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department, volunteers as a coach for a number of youth sports teams, and is an active member of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department.
He’s driven, dedicated, energetic – exactly the sort of recruit fire departments are looking for.
And he’s in short supply.
In recent years, volunteer fire departments in New York have seen a dramatic drop-off in membership. The numbers vary widely across the state – but here in the Adirondacks, many fire departments have seen membership decline by some 15 percent.
“For the first time, I can’t tell you in how long, we’ve not had an actual high school student join our junior program – so that was kind of our first red flag. We’re down significantly over the probably three or four years, probably 10 to 15 percent easily, with our membership,” said Rusty Hall, chief of the Keene Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
According to Hall, his department totals about 25 members – that includes firefighters and emergency responders. He’s been with the department for more than 37 years, and he recalls periods when membership ran in the 40s.
In Warrensburg, a community nearly three times larger than Keene, the fire department has 28 members. And the average age of each member is approximately 50.
So the problem facing many of these departments is two-fold. As Hall notes, there’s not only a need for more firefighters, but a need for younger recruits.
On the surface, dwindling volunteer totals represent a risk to public safety. It doesn’t take an expert to draw the conclusion that an undermanned fire department isn’t as effective.
Rusty Hall notes that, simply put, more volunteers translates to a more efficient fire and rescue operation.
“It most definitely makes it easier,” he said. “For instance, I’m out of town during the course of the day, so we ultimately run on skeleton crews during the course of the business day, and we have to rely more on our neighbors, and if they, in turn, are running on skeleton crews, the job just gets that much more difficult.”
But there’s another factor at play here – a sort of “what if?” factor. What if numbers continue declining and volunteer fire departments start vanishing?
Obviously, communities will still need fire and rescue service.
“Several years ago, it was estimated that if we had to pay our volunteers, in New York state it would cost over $7 billion a year.”
That’s Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, a North Country lawmaker who says the state needs to step up to the plate and better support volunteer fire and rescue personnel.
“We’ve done some little things, like giving out a $100 tax credit here and there, we allow communities to give them property tax reductions, but we don’t really do anything in the larger scheme of things to encourage them not only to come in, but stay in,” she said.
According to Sayward, state mandates require fire and rescue personnel to undergo hours of sometimes costly training. And those training sessions often take place miles away from home, she adds.
But for young volunteers like Keegan Muldowney, too much training isn’t a deterrent.
“There’s no substitution for training – lack of training is how people get hurt,” he said. “Simply put, that’s how it is. Yes, it’s difficult sometimes to make the trainings and to finish them and to get certified, but lack of training is how people get hurt.”
Seasoned fire and rescue officials like Rusty Hall, or Saranac Lake’s First Assistant Chief Casey Taylor, say it’s life that often gets in the way for potential volunteers.
Taylor says it’s sometimes difficult to retain older volunteers, especially those with spouses, children, and full-time jobs, because the role requires time and dedication.
And Muldowney says it’s no mystery why younger volunteers are hard to find.
“They’re either at school or at work,” he said. “The availability is tough, because you have an unstable life when you’re young these days. Unless you get right out of college with a stable career, you don’t have a stable income and a stable schedule where you can really commit to yourself and commit to your department that you’re going to be there.”
Sayward has introduced a bill in the Assembly that would allow volunteer firefighters to send their children to a state college or university for four years free-of-charge, so long as they’ve belonged to a department for at least five years, among other stipulations.
“We have to do something significant like that,” Sayward said.
But in a state where lawmakers are looking to slash spending, even for critical services like health care and public safety, looking to Albany may not be the best solution.
That’s why fire departments statewide hosted the first-ever statewide unified firefighter recruitment day earlier this month.
The idea, according to Essex County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish, was to open the doors at fire stations and show the public what volunteering is about.
In Keene Valley, visitors got to check out the facilities and try on turnout gear. And the department signed up one new member, according to Rusty Hall.
That might not seem like much, but as Hall points out, one extra person can often mean the difference between life and death in certain situations.
Hall says volunteering as a firefighter won’t make you rich or famous – but the fulfillment is there nonetheless.
“The personal rewards can be there, and fortunately in the number of years I’ve been able to serve my community, I’ve gotten a lot of those rewards,” he said.
Keegan Muldowney says getting involved with the fire department has been rewarding. But he stresses that it goes beyond that – getting involved, he says, is part of the cycle that keeps communities vibrant.
“Even when I was playing high school football, my coaches always preached that when you are at the point in your life when you are able to, you need to give back, just like the people that are giving to you now."