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Volunteer firefighters at work in Carthage. NCPR file photo
Volunteer firefighters at work in Carthage. NCPR file photo

Emergency services suffering from lack of volunteers

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Questions were raised a few weeks ago about emergency services in the north country when a local volunteer department was late responding to a fire in the town of LeRay in Jefferson County. The mutual aid system was activated and a nearby department responded to the blaze; fortunately, no one was hurt. But, as Joanna Richards reports, the incident did highlight a persistent and growing problem among the north country's primarily volunteer emergency services: a lack of manpower.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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The call went out for a house fire in the town of LeRay on May 21 at 8:27 in the morning. The fire was in the territory of the Evans Mills Fire Department, but it wasn't until the second call went out that a volunteer responded on the radio. It took up to eight minutes for a volunteer to arrive on scene. That might sound fast, but First Assistant Fire Chief Shawn Rutmanis says firefighters are usually out the door in two to three minutes. Those minutes matter.

"Tremendously, I mean it's huge. Fire just grows so fast that once it gets fuel from anything that's inside of the building, it just grows. It doubles, quickly. And the longer it takes to get water onto the fire, the more the fire is growing, and it's tough," said Rutmanis.

After getting no response from the first call for help, Rutmanis requested mutual aid from nearby departments, and Fort Drum responded first. "If Fort Drum wasn't there, we probably would have lost the house, instead of saving the house," said Rutmanis. According to him, the incident was the first time in his eight years as assistant chief that no volunteer responded to a first call for help.

Rutmanis says if it happens again, he'll be faster in activating the mutual aid system. The trouble, he says, is manpower, especially during daytime work hours. He said, "Being that time of the morning, everybody's got jobs. It's a volunteer organization, it's tough to get manpower Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; everybody's working. It's just hard to get people to respond to a call."

Joseph Plummer is director of fire and emergency management for Jefferson County. He says the lack of volunteers isn't new, but it has gotten worse over time. It's a big problem, because volunteers are the backbone of emergency protection in the north country. Plummer said, "In Jefferson County, we only actually have one career department. There's a few volunteer departments that have hired a single person to be like a driver type thing around the county to help out with that; however, we still are 99% relying on volunteers."

Plummer says the aging population of the area is partly to blame for the dearth of volunteers and said, "Firefighting is a young person's game, and, you know, our aging population, they aren't able to go rushing into burning buildings. It's very, very physically demanding and very stressful and everything else."

Demographics aren't the only problem, though. Plummer and Rutmanis agree that society has just gotten busier in recent decades. Many people have multiple jobs to make ends meet, kids are more committed to after-school activities, and men are more involved in their children's lives, heading off to soccer practice after dinner rather than to the firehouse. Women, too, are busier, and are more likely to work, and for longer hours than in the '70s and '80s.

Lance Ronas heads up the Indian River Ambulance Service, an independent, nonprofit outfit that combined the ailing ambulance services of the Theresa, Antwerp and Philadelphia fire departments. He says just as people's free time has been declining, the educational requirements for fire and EMS volunteers have been growing.

"There is the curriculum that was 140 hours for just the didactic portion of becoming a basic EMT. Then you had 16 hours of clinical time. Now that's going to 190 hours and the clinical time is going to double. So, now, just to become an EMT, you now have to devote over 200 hours of time," explained Ronas.

Still, despite the increasing pressures on family and work life, everyone interviewed for this story says volunteering for emergency services is very satisfying work; that's what keeps them involved. Ronas said, "Of course the service to their community, that's the biggest. Some people love the fact that they become educated. There's the camaraderie to coming and hanging out with your partner. They're part of a bigger group. There's just a – there's a good, humbling feeling to take care of your neighbor. There's an awful lot to be said, when you get done doing a call and the family says, 'thank you.'”

Ronas says consolidating the ambulance services could help the region’s fire departments that are struggling with a relative lack of volunteers. The EMS world is more open to this idea than the world of firefighting. Firehouses are bastions of tradition and take pride in their local identities. That can be a source of strength, but also means fire departments are less open to change.

Rutmanis also acknowledged that tradition is a huge factor in preventing mergers and said, "The identity of the Evans Mills Fire Department is Evans Mills. And it's always been Evans Mills and, you know, as long as I'm here, it's going to stay Evans Mills." Rutmanis says consolidation could mean traveling longer distances, and losing precious time, in order to respond to fire calls. However, longer response times may be preferable to no response at all.

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