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Capital Region fire districts forced to consider consolidation

Capital Region fire districts forced to consider consolidation

Over the last several years, many volunteer fire departments have faced challenges in maintaining me
Capital Region fire districts forced to consider consolidation
The time commitment for training can be one of the biggest obstacles in recruiting new members, said Andrew Coppola, chief of the Alplaus Volunteer Fire District. Volunteers at Alplaus train about once a week, he said. Coppola (left) is seen here cover...
Photographer: Erica Miller

When Andrew Poll was growing up, the firehouse in East Glenville served as a local gathering spot.

Residents would stop by to watch TV and chat with other community members, and the building served as the center of people’s social life.

“That’s not the case anymore,” said Poll, chief of the East Glenville Fire Department, which has seen its enrollment dip over the last few decades.

Over the last several years, many volunteer fire departments have faced challenges in maintaining membership and have opted for consolidation as a way to maintain quality service. In Duanesburg, the option of consolidation is new, but it’s not an easy choice. Public meetings are being held to spread information about a potential merger that would take place next year, at the earliest.

Duanesburg officials are gathering feedback on the possibility of consolidating town fire departments into a central command center after members of the fire department approached the town with the idea, said Town Supervisor Roger Tidball.

If the town’s fire departments were consolidated, it would save money on insurance costs and could improve and unify training across the board. For example, instead of paying to train 10 volunteers at one station, Tidball said, a trainer would be able to instruct 50 people at once.

The time commitment for training can be one of the biggest obstacles in recruiting new members, said Andrew Coppola, chief of the Alplaus Volunteer Fire District. Volunteers at Alplaus train about once a week, he said.

“It’s hard on a 25- to 35-year-old, because people have families and job commitments,” he said.

The Alplaus district saw a drop off in the early 2000s in volunteer enrollment, Coppola said. However, that dip was leveled off thanks in part to an Explorer Post, sponsored by the Boy Scout’s Learn for Life program.

The program provides young adults the opportunity to learn the basics of fire service. Members of the Explorer Post don’t respond to calls, but it’s a way to get them involved at an early age so they can form a connection with the fire district, with the hopes they’ll join full-time when they’re older.

Rotterdam’s Schonowe Volunteer Fire Company has actually increased in size over the last several years, in large part because of new young members joining, said Commissioner Bill Janiga.

Those members, a few of whom started around age 16, would talk about it with their friends, which would attract even more young members, Janiga said.

“I think the volunteer fire service needs to attract the youth of communities to get them involved,” said Poll, who referenced the Alplaus Explorer Post as an effective model.

Poll’s grandfather joined the East Glenville Fire Department shortly after it was founded in the 1940s. Growing up, Poll spent a lot of his free time at the firehouse because it was a social hub for many communities.

“When I was a kid there was like 75 members, and now we’re at 40,” he said. “Some of that has to do with the social aspect.”

In addition, many potential volunteers have families and need to dedicate time to working multiple jobs or attending their children’s activities, like Little League games and performances, Poll said.

Despite the steady decline in membership over the past few decades, East Glenville has seen an uptick in the volume of calls it receives, Poll said. Meanwhile, in Alplaus, the department will field about 450 calls in 2016, Coppola said.

To manage their calls and maintain a high level of service, East Glenville and Alplaus underwent an operational consolidation about seven years ago. That means the departments share equipment, perform training exercises together and work as one department on emergency scenes.

“We’re still separate fire districts, so there’s still that identity that people identify with,” Pool said. “It’s the best of both worlds. What we’ve done has certainly helped both districts.”

In Duanesburg, it would still be at least another year at least before any sort of merger would happen. Tidball said the town is trying to get a grant to perform a feasibility study on the consolidation to see if it would save money while maintaining safety for residents.

A survey was made available for residents to give input on what they value in a volunteer fire department and on how familiar they are with how the departments are funded.

Mike D’Agostino, fire chief at the Quaker Street Volunteer Fire Department, said during the first few meetings, people wanted to know the benefits before making any official decision.

For volunteers like D’Agostino, whose relatives were among the founding members of his fire district, there are strong ties to an individual fire house, making the idea of consolidation tougher.

“There’s a lot of history with the departments in town. Everyone has strong ties to the department they’re in,” he said. “It’s just a matter of losing that history of your station as well as trying to get everyone the resources they need now.”

Reach Gazette reporter Brett Samuels at 395-3113, [email protected] or @Brett_Samuels27 on Twitter.

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