By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Ladies and gentlemen, your local volunteer fire department needs you!
Volunteer companies around the region are hosting open house member events this weekend, as part of the RecruitNY statewide initiative spearheaded by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York.
Across the state and around Niagara County, volunteer fire companies are in need of additional members — young adults especially, some local fire official say — to help meet public demand for firefighting, emergency medical and general rescue services. Outside the three cities, trained volunteers are the community’s first responders.
At one-day open house events Saturday and Sunday, six area companies are inviting residents to check out their local firehouse and consider where their place is in it.
People willing to train to be firefighters, emergency medical technicians and fire police — the folks who secure crisis scenes and keep watch over responders and rubberneckers — are always in demand.
Increasingly, so are social or administrative members, meaning residents who can’t or don’t want to be first responders but have some other skill or talent that they’d donate to their local company. Some outfits are actively recruiting members with legal, accounting, media or fundraising experience, to strengthen the business side of their operations.
Others like Terry’s Corners Volunteer Fire Co. have created a new membership class, “social,” whose primary purpose is to handle fundraising so that “active” members, the first responders, can get some needed relief from double duty, according to Fire Chief Chris McClune-Case. Volunteer fire companies are only partly funded by the towns that contract with them for fire service; fundraising for equipment, gear and facilities improvements is necessary and never-ending.
“Constant training (to stay credentialed in emergency response), taking the calls day and night, working Bingo and selling raffle tickets: That’s the lifestyle of a volunteer firefighter in today’s world. Every company is short on manpower,” McClune-Case said.
Volunteer fire companies across the United States are challenged to keep their membership rosters beefed up. That’s likely due to the combination of changed family lifestyles — mom, dad and the kids all have busy lives — and increased training requirements for first responders, Niagara County Fire Coordinator Jonathan Schultz suggested.
New York State picks up the tab for volunteer company members’ college-level training, but the Firefighter 1 course consists of 80 hours of instruction, and the Emergency Medical Technician course consists of 130-plus hours of classroom instruction. The training alone is a significant commitment, Schultz acknowledged.
Also possibly depressing fire company membership is people’s suspicion that they don’t possess the requisite “stuff” to be rescue heroes.
In fact they do, according to Schultz, a 20-year active member of Upper Mountain VFC in Lewiston.
“One of the challenges is getting people to realize you don’t have to be superhuman to do this. Average Joe can do this. We all work together to get the job done,” he said.
When McClune-Case joined the Terry’s Corners company, he said he went in as a fire police volunteer, that is, a guy who directed traffic around crisis scenes. He had high interest in fraternal community service but zero interest in firefighting — or so he thought. Partly because he was prodded by fellow members, he soon signed up for EMS instruction, then a rescue diving course and, finally, firefighting courses, which he said he found exhilarating. The guy who originally didn’t think he had it in him has been fire chief since 2007.
The all-volunteer Barker Fire Department is taking applications from any Barker/Somerset resident who wants to join, but its priority is recruiting members who’ll commit to firefighting and/or EMS training. According to President Robert Wendler, among the company’s 40 current members, fewer than 10 are qualified to perform interior firefighting and another 10 EMS. While emergency medical calls far outnumber fire calls, he said, “having enough people to do both is important.”
Barker Fire’s open house will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. Along with hall tours and equipment displays and demos, refreshments will be served and useful “doodads” will be given away, Wendler said.
Miller Hose Fire Co. in Newfane faces issues similar to Barker Fire’s as longtime active members age and qualify for exempt status, 47-year member Marty Horanburg, said. At 75 years old, he’s still an active firefighter, which is not the norm for men his age.
“We really need the younger people to step up and replace (the exempts), replace the actives who leave for one reason or another. This is a young person’s game,” Horanburg said.
With that in mind, Miller Hose is publicizing the FASNY-funded Higher Education Learning Plan program, through which volunteer firefighters can get community college tuition reimbursement in exchange for pledging a minimum of five years of service to their local fire company. Information about HELP will be available at the company’s open house, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the hall on McKee Street.
Also during the open house, members will dedicate Miller Hose’s newly acquired 2013 Pierce Class A pumper truck, which was recently put into service. Extrication methods at auto accidents will be demonstrated and a fire safety booth will air “what to do” tips in the event of an emergency. EMS-certified members will do blood pressure screenings and kids will be invited to play in a bounce house and ride on a fire truck.
In addition to tuition reimbursement, there are a couple of modest state and local financial incentives to volunteer fire service, including a state income tax credit of $250 per year and, where it’s been approved by local voters, a host town-funded pension program that pays a monthly service award to veteran volunteers based on their years of service. Over a dozen proposals to enhance or create new financial benefits for volunteers were introduced in the state Legislature this year, but none have been approved.
Also, Schultz pointed out, firefighter and EMS training is free-of-charge to enrolled volunteers and their companies. The training has a decent dollar value and there’s no prohibition on students parlaying it into job opportunities. Many paramedics from area private ambulance companies got their EMS certifications by joining volunteer fire companies, he said.
Most VFC members don’t enlist for the occasional financial perks, though, fire officers believe.
“It’s not for pay or glory, it’s to help your neighbors and your community,” Wendler said.
Tax and tuition credits “are just bonus stuff on top of the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference for someone,” McClune-Case added.
The open house at Terry’s Corners fire hall, Chestnut Ridge Road, from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, will include a Mercy Flight demonstration at 1 p.m., weather permitting, and a presentation by Tri-Town Ambulance Co. on EMS training. Also, features of the newly renovated hall, including an enlarged rentable banquet space, will be shown off with help from the company’s caterer, Donna Eick, and a deejay.
Terry’s Corners is waiving the membership fee for anyone who submits an application during the open house; the waiver is valid on both active and social memberships. Residents of the Terry’s Corners, South Lockport, Rapids, Wolcottsville, Middleport, Gasport and Wrights Corners fire districts, and the City of Lockport, are eligible to apply.These area volunteer fire companies are hosting free-to-the-public, afternoon open house events this weekend in conjunction with the Firemen's Association of the State of New York's RecruitNY push: • Barker Fire Department, 1660 Quaker Road, noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. • Miller Hose Fire Co., 6161 McKee St., Newfane, 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. • Rapids Volunteer Fire Co., 6131 Old Beattie Road, Lockport, Saturday. • Shawnee Volunteer Fire Co., 3747 Lockport Road, Sanborn, Saturday. • Terry's Corners Volunteer Fire Co., 7801 Chestnut Ridge Road, Gasport, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. • Wilson Fire Co. No. 1, 250 Young St., Saturday.