OUR OFFICE SITS right across Route 66 from Ghent Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. Late Tuesday afternoon as thunderstorms moved across the county a pickup truck with a flashing blue light pulled into the firehouse parking lot. The driver jumped out and ran into the first garage bay while the door was still rising. Seconds later another truck arrived and its driver sprinted in. A third man was close behind. He wore a workout shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Seconds later he reappeared in full turnout gear.
The fire truck moved out with no siren, heading toward Chatham. Maybe it was a fire, maybe storm-related. Volunteer firefighters perform more duties than most people know. These firefighters didn’t know somebody was watching. They were responding to an emergency the way they’re trained to. No hesitation, no delays. They go.
There isn’t a more central institution in our communities than fire companies. So when somebody picks a fight with an organization that represents the interests of volunteer firefighters, it deserves some attention. In this case it just happens to be the organization that represents the interests of community newspapers like this one. Uh oh.
This squabble comes close to home because the organization representing the volunteer firefighters is the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, better known as FASNY. It also operates the Volunteer Firemen’s Home and the Museum of Firefighting in Hudson. These are not only outstanding institutions, the home is a large employer in the county.
FASNY has several million dollars, including $4 million from the Department of Homeland Security, to recruit new volunteer firefighters statewide. To do this the organization has reportedly approved an advertising campaign on TV, radio, billboards, movie theaters and online. But the New York Press Association, the trade group we belong to, says the campaign won’t spend any money on local newspaper advertising. The press association says it was told that community newspapers aren’t relevant to the FASNY recruitment campaign because “as people have become more mobile they have become less attached to their communities.”
The press association executive director wrote to us members, urging us to editorialize about how much coverage we give local fire companies and volunteers. In her suggested editorial text she thoughtfully reassures her readers that newspaper coverage won’t change because of this perceived slight. Well, gee, thanks. But it wasn’t an issue until you brought it up.
This is a silly game. We don’t get much statewide advertising of any kind, though what we have published has come through the press association. I know our organization is just doing its job as the representative of the community newspaper industry. But local papers like ours never did expect to make money covering volunteer fire company activities. We cover them because firefighters and their auxiliaries and all the training and fundraising and the rest of it define community news. It’s stuff people need to know and its what they will find only in local news sources.
It’s possible that this ad campaign was cooked up by a roomful of clueless ad executives in Manhattan who think Central Park is the woods. But based on FASNY’s operations here, that organization appears to have some very bright people running the show. So it’s a good bet that they have seen some research that convinced them not to use local newspapers as a place to advertise for new volunteers.
Another possibility is that FASNY officials know but can’t admit how much free support local fire companies already get in the local press. The firefighters’ organization may see no reason to pay for what it gets gratis, preferring instead to buy other media. That’s a business decision, and I won’t quarrel with it.
But let’s get one thing clear. Now that the issue has come up, we don’t want any of the FASNY advertising money from this recruitment campaign. Taking it now would raise the possibility that our coverage of firefighting activities is tied to advertising money. It isn’t.
There is, however, something we would like from FASNY: any facts that show how much better those other media are at reaching potential recruits. The data might help newspapers improve our outreach. It might also teach us how to counter the notion that the people likely to become firefighters are too mobile to be interested in local news. If FASNY was willing to invest millions in that kind of empty-headed sales pitch, others might fall for it too.