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Fully Involved Effort

December 11, 2009
Written by: Drew Kerr: dkerr@poststar.com

Fire Companies Attempt New Ways to Recruit Volunteers

Tom Atkinson has lived in Malta for nearly a decade, but it wasn't until he joined the Malta Ridge Fire Department in February that the 44-year-old truly felt he had a place in the community.

"I have lived in Malta for a while, but only now do I feel like I'm a part of Malta," Atkinson said during a recent interview at the firehouse off Route 9. In his regular job, Atkinson works largely from home as a project manager for a computer
software company.

Finding residents who share Atkinson's enthusiasm for firefighting isn't always so easy for fire departments that rely on sheer altruism to build their ranks, however.

Several officials at all-volunteer fire departments in the area said recently that apathy, work constraints and an ever-increasing amount of required training discourage prospective members. The recession has taken its toll, too, as active
members leave to take up second and third jobs.

At the Queensbury Central Fire Department, membership has fallen from a peak of 75 people - with more on a waiting list - to just 45, many of whom are unavailable during working hours.

"People are already working 16-hour days, and with that extra time that they do have, it's not, ‘Hey, let's go do some fire calls,' it's, ‘Hey, let's go catch up on some sleep,'" said Joe Duprey, fire chief at the Queensbury Central Fire Department.

To be sure, not every department in the area reported such deep dips in membership, and no chiefs suggested their ranks were so thin that public safety is being compromised.

But several fire officials also acknowledged they would like to get more men and women involved with their departments and that the all-volunteer model may need to be re-examined if more recruits aren't found in the coming years.

"I don't think we've reached the point where the public's safety is being put at risk yet, but I honestly can't sit here and tell you that's not going to happen," said Duprey, whose department is responsible for the Warren County facilities and Route 9 corridor.

Statistics compiled by the National Volunteer Fire Council, a nonprofit organization that represents volunteer departments across the country, show modest gains in the number of volunteer firefighters in recent years.

But the total population of volunteer firefighters nationwide is still down around 8 percent from 1984 levels, according to the group, and the declines are causing some understaffed departments to consider moving towards a paid model.

The transition is a costly one, though, and not every community has a tax base that is willing or able to pay for the switch, officials said. In Malta, for example, town officials have estimated moving to a fully paid department would cost taxpayers anywhere from $3 million to $4 million a year.

As it is, the town will charge a tax rate of 82 cents for every $1,000 in property value to support the volunteer department's $550,000 budget, money that will largely to be directed at upgrades to the department's facilities.

"That's our claim to fame - we give you a lot of bang for your buck," said Peter Shaw, fire chief at Malta Ridge, where a $150,000 federal grant has allowed the department to bulk up its recruitment campaign over the last year.

Hoping to avoid such a dramatic escalation in costs, communities are building partnerships with neighboring departments and are adopting hybrid models in which staffers are paid during daytime shifts and volunteers are used in the evenings.

"It all depends on the community and what they can afford," said Kimberly Ettinger, a spokeswoman for the National Volunteer Fire Council. "Most small towns don't have the economic base to have a paid fire department so are looking for more of a compromise."

The costs, Ettinger said, highlight how volunteer firefighters' contributions can often be overlooked in a community.

"A lot of people take for granted the fact that the fire department will be there when they need them," she said.

Realizing the disconnect, local departments have adopted several tactics to put a spotlight on the role they play in hopes of building community support and gaining a few new members.

Programs that allow teenagers to get involved and build toward eventual membership are one way departments are reaching out.

The Quaker Springs Fire Department, for example, put a program in place last year that allowed 14- to 16-year-olds to help out around the station.

A half-dozen teenagers are now involved.

"What they can participate in is restricted, but at least it gets them in and around the firehouse and sets them up for future membership," said Dave Poltynski, who joined the department in 2006.

The department, which now has around 50 members, is also emphasizing ancillary roles that require less training and time commitment to get residents involved.

Serving as fire police and helping to direct traffic or becoming a pump operator are ways to help without the physical or training demands of being an interior firefighter, Poltynski said.

"We need the help, but that doesn't necessarily mean we need people who are willing to run into a burning building," he said.

Retirement programs that allow members to build up pension accounts and perks such as gas money and gift cards are also being offered, but some officials say more still needs to be done.

Malta Supervisor Paul Sausville said he'd like to see state lawmakers allow towns to exempt their volunteers from fire district taxes as one way of luring more members.

The move in his town would cost each resident around $2, but the trade-off is a fair one, he said. "Here these volunteers go out and train, and when they get back home, they open a bill for a service they're giving the town for free," Sausville said. "It's a fairness and equity issue. It's just not right that they have to give twice."

Such monetary incentives are not a primary motivating factor for many firefighters, though, fire officials said.

Instead, firefighters are emphasizing their roles in the community and marketing membership as a way to build relationships and gain entry to some adrenaline-enhancing situations.

Jeramy Lisky, 32, was sold on those elements. He had just joined the department last year when the ice storm hit, a natural disaster that kept him busy until 3 a.m., but he said the long hours hardly discouraged his gusto.

"When that pager goes off, you're not thinking about what time it is or what you have to do; it actually gets you pretty pumped," he said. "You can always sleep the next night."