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Volunteer fire departments deal with low numbers

December 23, 2012
By ARTHUR CLEVELAND , The Leader Herald

Officials with some volunteer fire departments in?Montgomery?County say there has been a shortage of recruits, as well as members able to respond during the daytime.

In the midst of dealing with those issues, officials said some departments have discussed having one advisory board for multiple departments, and even talk of doing a consolidation study.

George King, Florida's fire enforcement officer, has seen problems with the lack of volunteer firefighters and their availability grow over years.

Article Photos

The Fonda Fire Department is one of the local volunteer fire departments dealing difficulties caused by a lack of volunteers.

The Leader-Herald/Arthur Cleveland

"Its not a local problem," King said. "Its a nationwide problem."

According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, recruitment and retention is one of the biggest challenges facing volunteer fire departments today.

"Volunteers comprise 70 percent of our nation's fire service, and it is critical that we keep the volunteer fire service strong now and in the future," the council said on its website.

The importance of recruiting and maintaining volunteer firefighters is not new.

Every year, there is a national recruiting effort to get more volunteer firefighters.

As part of National?Volunteer Week, the Firemen's Association of the State of New York designated April 21 and April 22 as days volunteer departments could hold open house events and focus on recruiting firefighters.

The website for FASNY also notes it has developed the Higher Education Learning Plan - a program providing tuition reimbursement to individuals attending community college for up to 80 credit hours. Student-volunteers are eligible to have up to 100 percent of their tuition reimbursed in exchange for maintaining their grades and fulfilling defined service requirements.

However, J.D. Downing, Glen Volunteer Fire Department chief, said much of the decline in recruits has come from a change in the times.

"Our lives today are much different than 10, 15 or 20 years ago," Downing said.

According to Downing, people are so busy, some do not want to spend the hours necessary to earn the right to be a volunteer firefighter and to keep it.

"People just don't have the time," Downing said.

Donald Wagoner, fire chief for the Fonda Volunteer?Fire Department, said the office had gone down in numbers in the last 20 years. In 1992, Wagoner said, the department had 40 members and a waiting list. In 2012, it has 15 active members.

"The younger generation does not want to get involved," Wagoner said.

Downing said that Glen's department has roughly 37 volunteers, but during some daytime calls, he wonders who will be able to show up.

Officials with the Glen, Fonda, and Tribes Hill volunteer fire departments all said they sometimes only have a handful of volunteers respond during daytime calls. That leads to calls for aid from other fire departments.

Tim Haegi, fire chief in Fort Hunter, said that department currently has 25 firefighters on the active roster.

Haegi said the number of firefighters who respond really depends on the time, with daytime hours only getting half of the available roster for his department.

"Mostly it's out-of-town work. I have members who commute to Albany, Schenectady and Troy for work," Haegi said.

Work is one of the main reasons for this drop.

"Quite a few companies won't allow volunteers to leave," Haegi said.

Mark Brownell, Tribes Hill chief, said that its part of being a volunteer fire department.

Downing said there has been discussion among some fire departments to try and combine several individual volunteer fire departments - including departments in Glen, Fultonville, Fonda, Tribes Hill, Mohawk, and Fort Hunter - under one advisory board.

That conversation led to talk of a consolidation study, Downing said, for which a grant may be applied.

"This might not even be feasible. We don't know," Downing said.

"We are looking at the options to try and provide adequate numbers to provide coverage," Brownell said.

In recent months, village officials in?Fonda have considered dissolving its fire departmentto allow the town of Mohawk's volunteer fire department to cover the village. Fonda Mayor Bill Peeler has cited the cost of maintaining the village's department - roughly $43,000 a year, compared to having Mohawk provide coverage for about $22,000 a year - as a key issue.

However, members of the village's fire department were critical of the Fonda Village Board for allegedly moving to dissolve the department without informing the firefighters.

Village fire officials also said they originally proposed the idea of merging the two departments, but - at that time - the board declined to pursue consolidation.



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