HUDSON—The Columbia County Fire Advisory Board’s Recruitment and Retention Committee is “open to any kind of idea” that will attract new volunteer firefighters, says Gary Mazzacano, chair of both the Board and the Committee, as well as past chief of the Greenport Fire District.
All fire departments in Columbia County constantly need more people, and not only to run into burning buildings, says County Fire Coordinator George Keeler. Firefighting also requires a variety of tasks from scene support to desk work, he emphasized. Nevertheless, fewer people have been joining the firefighting world in recent years than in previous years. In interviews earlier this month fire officials spoke of work that needs doing, recruitment efforts for the young and others, and retention incentives.
Many people can perform essential firefighting functions but do not realize it, Mr. Mazzacano says. There is no maximum age. Scene Support includes—depending on one’s training—handing other firefighters the right tools, dragging hoses, pumping, changing air bottles, driving trucks, and Emergency Medical Service. Back in the office, the fire company needs administrative functions. Even cooking for the crew adds to the firefighting operation.
Not having family already in the fire trade is no obstacle to joining a fire company. Although fire companies are full of members of the same family who have been there for generations, “The demographic is changing,” says Mr. Keeler.
The number of new recruits has been down for some years. Mr. Mazzacano observes that a lot of people today have to work “a couple of jobs” and do not have time to volunteer.
Tim Hutchings, fire commissioner for the City of Hudson, points to the rising cost of housing. “We’ve seen a direct correlation” between higher rents and increased house prices and the loss of membership, he says.
Firefighters can live out of their company’s town but not far away. After all, fire calls are “time sensitive,” Mr. Hutchings said.
Mr. Mazzacano says that if someone works in the day, they can do firefighting at night.
The most successful recruitment is spreading the word and letting the public know everything the fire companies need, says Mr. Keeler.
All firefighting in Columbia County is volunteer. The public budget burden of paying the firefighters would be “astronomical” Mr. Mazzacano says. But he points out that training, equipment and an annual medical exam are free. In addition, some fire companies have retirement benefits.
Volunteer firefighters do not sit waiting for fire calls. They have pagers, which—often through the 911 system—call them to incidents. With mutual aid, the county gets enough firefighters at incidents.
The fire service welcomes new participants of all descriptions, but two groups currently of special interest to recruiters are new county residents and young people.
‘We’re anxious to reach out to young people.’
Gary Mazzacano, chair, Recruitment and Retention Committee
Columbia County Fire Advisory Board
Both Mr. Keeler and Mr. Mazzacano see newcomers to the county as a potential source of new blood and diversity for the fire departments. Still, many from downstate are used to paid firefighters and “don’t realize this is volunteer,” observes Mr. Mazzacano.
Meanwhile, “we’re anxious to reach out to young people. A lot of us are older and can’t do everything [that] needs to be done, Mr. Mazzacano says. Techniques for recruiting young people include:
•Posters with pictures of young people as firefighters, thanks to a start-up grant of $5,000 from the Columbia County Firefighters Association, Mr. Mazzacano says.
•Junior Explorer programs for ages 14 to 18, in some fire companies. Participants in Hudson’s Junior Explorer program attend drills twice a week throughout the year and provide scene support, said Mr. Hutchings. Routine drills are at 6:30 pm so as not to interfere with school or extracurricular activities. Participants get pagers, but are not expected at fire calls during the school day. Currently, the program has about 10 members. About 75% of its participants complete the program and move on to regular membership, says Mr. Hutchings. This year the Hudson department has taken in two new alumni of the program. The Hudson program started in 1979.
The Greenport Junior Explorer program has been “very successful,” Mr. Mazzacano says. About 20 people on its force now have come in through the youth program.
Typically reasons young people give for becoming firefighters are “I want to give back to my community,” and “I want to help people, and I have time,” Mr. Keeler says. And once they get involved, they like to stay involved, says Mr. Mazzacano. The problem is getting more people started.
He says additional recruitment the Recruitment and Retention Committee would like to try include more ads on TV and radio and getting celebrities who live in the county to participate in ads.
Many fire companies offer length-of-service awards, consisting of fixed amounts paid every month, to members above a certain age, after a certain number of years of service. Sometimes the payment size depends on the number of points one has earned for activities such as going on fire calls and attending training sessions. These seem to help with retention but not recruitment, Mr. Keeler says. However, when Greenport started offering monthly payments to people over 65 based on a point system, a lot of firemen’s wives came in for training, says Mr. Mazzacano.