Fighting fires with the Carman Volunteer Fire Department used to be something reserved for adults.
For years, the minimum age to join the company was 18. But with Carman in search of more volunteers, the commissioners of Rotterdam Fire District 3 have relaxed the age requirement, allowing those between the ages of 16 and 17 to volunteer.
Fire Chief David Galka said the junior members will serve support roles during firefighting, such as connecting to hydrants or hoisting ladders, instead of going inside a burning building.
Teens must live within the Carman district to apply, and must receive permission from a parent or guardian. Young firefighters will be required to perform academically and parents will be asked to keep the department abreast of any volunteer who has a drop in grades.
“We’re trying to build the membership,” he said this week. “Hopefully by bringing in 16- and 17-year-olds, it will build interest.”
Carman now has about 47 active members. Galka said the department, like many volunteer companies throughout the state, has difficulties in recruiting new volunteers. Galka said the drive for new members has only gotten more trying in the troubled economy. Some residents don’t have the time to volunteer because they work two jobs. Others aren’t aware that Carman is a volunteer organization. Galka said the end result is a ceaseless demand for volunteers.
Carman once allowed teenagers to volunteer as part of the explorer program through the Boy Scouts of America. The program taught the basics of fire fighting but didn’t include the participants as members of the department.
“Here, you’re an actual active member of the department,” Galka said.
Galka said an influx of younger members would help relieve some of the duties now performed by senior fire fighters. In addition, he’s hoping that recruiting volunteers at a young age will convince them to stay with the department longer than if they joined after their 18th birthday, an age when many youth are leaving the area for college or other employment.
Departments taking on younger members is nothing unique to Carman, said Tom Labelle, the executive director of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. In fact, some departments even allow junior members to enter burning buildings to attack a fire.
Still, Labelle said the steady departure of baby boomers from the ranks of volunteers has prompted an increasing number of departments to seek more members,
“We’re looking for all different kinds of ways of addressing that number of volunteers and this is one of them,” he said.