Too Few at a Fire: Declining volunteer numbers leave departments vulnerable

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs of

When Jon Roman joined the Candor Fire Department in 1990, he was one of about a dozen junior members between 16 and 18 years old. Now, the department has no junior members and hasn’t had a more than one at any time in the last 10 years.

Roman, who became chief of the department in 2007, said the decrease in volunteering worries him constantly.

“Every time, if I’m out of town, wondering who’s there to respond, it’s definitely a concern,” he said. “If there are multiple calls at once, you just have to deal with it how you can.”

Lee Shurtleff, the director and fire coordinator of the Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response and former chief of the Groton Fire Department, said it has become much more difficult to recruit new members.

“When I go to a fire scene today,” Shurtleff said, “I’m seeing the same people I saw 20 years ago—no new faces. We’re all 20 years older, trying to do the same job, and the number of calls we’re responding to are increasing on a yearly basis.”

Shurtleff arrived at the scene of a structure fire on President’s Day in 2015 to find just five other firefighters, only one of whom was under 40. There would have been four times as many people there 20 years ago, he said.

Fire departments across the region are being forced to rethink how they respond to calls, how often they request aid from nearby stations and—maybe most vitally—how to attract young volunteers.

Local fire chiefs point the large time commitment, strenuous training and a culture shift away from fire stations as community centers as reasons why young people are no longer volunteering as they used to.

Doug Keefe, chief of the Speedsville Fire Company in Caroline and president of the County Fire and EMS Chiefs Association, posed the question to Cornell business students last year. They interviewed 200 volunteers and non-volunteers to determine how local departments could bring in new recruits.

To help bring in members, according to the Cornell students’ research, the community should work together to incentivize volunteering, by having local businesses, for example, offer volunteer firefighters 10 percent off their purchases. They also suggested that departments streamline their recruiting process, making it easier to apply, and draw from Cornell students who applied to Cornell EMS.

The student researchers found that residents want more community involvement from the fire department, in the form of community dinners or other local events.

Another key finding, Keefe said, is that many fire departments need to take what they can get, even if that means people who offer to cut the grass or fill the truck’s tires rather than join the firefighting force itself.

Even with the survey results, Keefe said the volunteerism forecast is not looking good.

There are a lot of volunteer departments in upstate New York, he said, and soon people will “have to look at the cold hard facts of consolidation.”

Increasingly, local chiefs feel that they are competing with students’ busy lives, from school to sports practice to video games, and that many residents just don’t have the time to volunteer for the department.

“You’re asking college students or people with families to dedicate two nights a week and all day Saturday” just for training, said George Tamborelle, chief of the Cayuga Heights Fire Department since 2003. “It’s 100 percent critical that we have this level of training, but when somebody with a wife comes in or someone with a husband at home, or a college student comes in who’s carrying 21 credits at IC or Cornell, they take a deep breath and ask themselves, ‘Do I have the time do this?’”

“When you’re carrying a heavy course load, trying to have a life, involved with a sports team or you have a family, it really does become time prohibitive to volunteer as a firefighter,” he added.

At the Cayuga Heights department, volunteers need to complete at least 100 hours of training before they can be considered eligible to fight fires inside of a burning building.

Roman said that in addition to the large time commitment of mandated training, many students don’t even think to volunteer at their local fire station.

“There’s so much for kids to do that it’s never seen as an option or an opportunity for them,” Roman said, adding that it’s difficult to inspire students to volunteer for what often is not a glorious job.

“A lot of it is getting up at weird hours of the night to babysit a tree that fell down across the road and waiting for NYSEG for hours,” Roman said. “It’s not always running in to put a fire out quickly” like in movies.

Roman said potential junior members are often forced to choose between competing in a sport or volunteering for the department, as both are large time commitments that require grueling training.

He said he understands why students would rather compete against their friends on the soccer or football fields rather than choose to be the only person in their age range at the fire station. There’s also no financial benefit to volunteering, Roman said, as opposed to the potential to earn a scholarship by playing a sport.

Several local chiefs also pointed to the cultural shift away from fire departments as community centers. Rarely do people choose to meet or hang out at the fire department as in the past, chiefs said.

About 20 or 30 years ago, the fire department “was a social club, and there were waiting lists to get in,” said Lt. Thomas Basher of the Ithaca City Fire Department. Now, firefighters rarely lounge at the fire department, he said. (The city fire department is a paid professional group, but also includes volunteers.)

But the Cayuga Heights Fire Department may be bucking that trend with its state-of-the-art facility and bunking program, which allows seven firefighters, each of whom commit to being on duty three nights a week, to sleep at the fire station.

The wireless internet, giant televisions, and plush couches make the program more compelling, but also allow volunteers who are not in the bunking program to enjoy hanging out around the station, said George Tamborelle, the department’s chief since 2003.

“The fire station design really helps a lot,” he said. Before the station was upgraded, it “didn’t have the space for all the members to hang out. They went to the station for calls and went home.”

Cornell students now regularly choose to study at the station between calls instead of at libraries, Tamborelle said, but he acknowledged that other stations with less funding cannot afford the amenities that Cayuga Heights is able to provide to its volunteers.

“We’re extremely lucky that we have the financial means to make this happen,” he said. “There are many communities out there that just put it together how they can.”

Roman said a bunking program is perfect for higher-density communities with college students, but just isn’t practical for Candor, which is nearly 20 miles from Cornell and Ithaca College.

“In the college community, 18 miles is a long distance, especially when you have places like Danby, Newfield, and Trumansburg, which are eight miles away,” Roman said. “That’s definitely beneficial for areas that are closer to universities.”

Candor is one of the largest fire districts in the state, Roman said, and his department serves 7,000 people across 95 square miles. To deal with the burden of covering large swaths of land, Candor and other departments are increasingly relying on mutual aid — calling other local departments for assistance with structure fires or other emergencies.

“It can realistically take 10 to 15 minutes to get to a call, and Candor is not flat—it’s very hilly,” Roman said.

In addition to the difficult terrain and spread-out population in Candor, the firefighters often don’t know who, or how many, volunteers are responding to a call until they arrive on the scene or at the station.

“You don’t know until you get here and hear the truck start to respond,” Roman said during an interview inside the station. “You just don’t know who you have coming.”

“If we get a structure fire on a Friday night, you don’t know who’s going to show up,” Basher said. “Every time you go to an emergency, not only do you have to come up with a game plan of what you’re going to do, but then you have to look up at who’s there and see what you can do.”

Calling for mutual aid can be vital, especially during the day, when fewer volunteers are generally available. Departments are very careful to request only what they need, so as to not leave the other station short-staffed, but also because a station is liable for any equipment it requests.

Candor regularly requests mutual aid from Spencer, and more and more departments are setting up automatic mutual aid, where certain types of emergencies at certain times or in corners of the fire district trigger other departments to respond.

The Cayuga Heights Fire Department, for example, automatically responds to calls of structure fires in the Village of Lansing.

“The departments in this county are very non-parochial, very aware that any time day or night you’re going to need assistance from your neighbor,” Tamborelle said.

Even with reliance on mutual aid, many volunteers fear a scenario where their departments are stretched to the limit to handle multiple emergencies.

“Two trucks up at Ithaca or Cornell for a fire alarm, difficulty breathing at the Commons and then there’s a structure fire—that’s the nightmare,” Basher said.

Many chiefs have a sizable number of members in their department, but know that there is a core group that is regularly available to respond.

Candor, for example, has about 50 total members, but about 30 of them are considered actively involved. But out of that 30, Roman said, there are about 15 or 20 members who he can count on to consistently show up to fires and other emergencies.

Roman said the most active member of the Candor department in 2015 responded to 108 of 125 fire calls and just turned 83 years old. Another member, Martin Kopcho, works night shifts as a state police sergeant and makes himself available for emergencies during the day.

It is these men and women who are taking on the brunt of the calls and dealing most heavily with the decrease in volunteers.

“Every single department in this state has a core group of people who do the majority of the calls,” Basher said. “When the fire departments say they need funding and fire power, they really do. Fire engines don’t put fires out, firefighters do.” •


Posted in Current Events, Fire Service, Staffing.