Dave Stern can remember a time when the South Schenectady Fire Department was brimming with volunteers.
But membership at the Rotterdam firehouse has fallen drastically over the last two decades as older members age out and the department struggles to attract younger recruits to take their place.
“We’re taking in maybe one or two new members a year,” said Stern, the department’s chief. “But then on the other end, guys aged out to a point where they just don’t want to, or physically can’t do it anymore. We lose just as many as we take in, so we’re kind of keeping the status quo.”
Today, the department is made up of around 50 members, well below the 75 Stern would like to have at the busy department that responds to around 300 calls annually.
“We’re still getting trucks off the floor for calls, but any day could be hit or miss based on somebody’s work schedule, home-life schedule and things of that nature,” he said.
South Schenectady isn’t alone in its struggles to recruit and retain members.
Volunteer fire departments throughout New York, including those in Schenectady County, have been grappling with declining memberships for the past 20 years, which has forced changes to how local departments respond to emergencies and has prompted concerns about the future of fire services at a time when the number of emergency calls continues to rise.
A report issued last year by the state’s Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment & Retention Task Force – which was assembled in 2020 to develop ways to address declining volunteer membership — found that the state had 20,000 less volunteer firefighters than 20 years ago. Call volume, according to the report, has doubled over the past 30 years, from 750,000 to 1.4 million annually.
“The decline in volunteerism is not unique to the fire service, however the lack of available volunteer firefighters across the state has real public safety impacts — jeopardizing the protection of people and property in our local communities,” the report says.
Officials say societal shifts and long hours have lead to the decline, which mirrors struggles paid fire departments have faced in recent years when filling out their ranks.
The state has taken steps in recent years to reverse the decline by extending tax breaks to volunteers as a way to help retain and attract new members.
Last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul approved legislation allowing local municipalities to extend a 10% property tax exemption to volunteer firefighters with at least two years of service. Several municipalities, including Schenectady County and Rotterdam have adopted the tax break locally, and several others, including Niskayuna, are considering it.
The governor has also proposed extending a $1,000 income tax break to volunteer firefighters, and setting aside $10 million to pay for training as part of her proposed state budget. There’s also legislation to offer volunteers a stipend for their service.
Every incentive helps, but there is no “silver bullet” to address the issue, said John D’Alessandro, secretary of the Firefighters Association of the State of New York, who described the declining membership at fire departments as a “serious concern.”
“We’re happy to have as many items in the toolbox as we can because it’s a very complex problem,” he said. “Every option, every incentive, every creative program that we can think of helps, but no one of them is going to solve this dramatic decline in the number of people volunteering.”
Long hours, short supply
Locally, fire officials attribute the decline in volunteerism to strenuous time commitments and a cultural shift that has seen many working longer hours or multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
Andrew Coppola, assistant chief of the Alplaus Fire Department in Glenville, said his department relies heavily on retirees, who have available hours, but are aging out and becoming increasingly difficult to replace.
The department currently has 28 members, according to Coppola, who noted there were 45 volunteers when he joined in 1998. The department responds to around 400 calls annually.
“Slowly but surely the members started to dwindle,” he said. “A lot of it had to do with people aging out. I’ll tell you right now, if it wasn’t for retirees that are able to come and be pump operators and drivers and things like that, the fire service in general would struggle.”
Coppola said the department has focused on bolstering its recruitment efforts by tabling at events and encouraging current members to spread the word about opportunities within the department whenever possible.
But many are turned off by the time commitment.
Volunteer firefighters have to complete hundreds of hours of training to become certified and must attend regular training events throughout the year and respond to a certain number of calls to maintain membership.
“I think the time commitment is the hardest thing,” Coppola said. “A lot of people have two jobs now. I spend just as much time at the firehouse as I do at my job between training and meetings and things like that.”
A change in response
The drop in volunteers has forced fire departments to alter how they respond to fire calls, said Scott Pike, the fire coordinator for Schenectady County.
Fire departments used to respond to incidents in their respective districts and call for mutual aid if needed, Pike said. Today, mutual aid is called in automatically due to the dwindling number of first responders available, particularly during the day, when many volunteers are working their regular jobs.
“Years ago they’d have a full truck, now they may have three or four firefighters on the rigs,” Pike said. “That’s where the mutual aid comes in, because the responding department gets three or four and then the mutual aid company gets three or four. At least they have six to eight firefighters responding to the call.”
Pike said the issue is more pronounced in rural areas, where populations are smaller and residents tend to be older, but the issue is felt in every department across the county.
“I don’t know if we’re at the crisis stage yet, but we’re definitely heading down that road,” he said. “If we don’t get more people to volunteer, you’re going to see a lot more fire departments start to struggle.”
Dale Lingenfelter, chief of Niskayuna Fire District No. 1, which is made up of paid and volunteer firefighters, difficulties attracting new recruits has the department looking at adding additional paid positions, a move that, if approved, would cost thousands of dollars annually.
The department currently has 19 full-time firefighters who staff the department around the clock, but relies on volunteers for additional support. The department has just 12 volunteers, about a quarter of the 50 Lingenfelter would like.
“I would venture a guess that if you’ve talked to any other departments they are probably in very similar situations,” Lingenfelter said.
Lingenfelter said the department had 50 volunteers back in the 1980s before memberships began to gradually decline, something he attributed to a higher volume of calls and need for increased training, which requires volunteers to give up additional hours of free time on top of the long hours they already sacrifice.
In addition, Lingenfelter pointed to longer working hours and the rise of social media as a siphon, drawing members away from departments, which were once considered community hubs.
The department is looking at offering more flexible training hours and offering members to work during set hours that will allow volunteers to meet their required service hours without having to disrupt their schedules.
Lingenfelter said the drop in volunteers is also impacting career departments.
Around 75% of the department’s career firefighters began their career as volunteers, creating an important pipeline that has started to dry up in recent years.
“The volunteer service, a lot of times, it’s kind of like the farm team for the career service,” Lingenfelter said. “A lot of kids will get into the volunteer ire service and realize, ‘Hey, I like this line of work. It fulfills me and I like serving my community’ and maybe take a firefighter exam and get on the job for a career department.”
Meanwhile, D’Alessandro, the secretary of FASNY, said the organization has been working with local departments to bolster recruitment efforts by helping raise awareness about available opportunities available.
Departments need more than just interior and exterior firefighters, he said. There are ample positions within each department, including drivers, and fire police.
The organization has launched a website, fireinyou.org, that provides information on joining a fire department. The efforts have helped, but there is still a long way to go, D’Alessandro said.
“We’re slowing down a bit, that rate of decline, but we’re still on the negative side,” he said. “We’re still seeing far too few people becoming volunteer firefighters or EMS personnel.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.
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