Where there’s smoke, will firefighters follow?

County looks for ways to maintain volunteer system

ANCRAM—Volunteer firefighters have sounded the alarm about their declining numbers.

They are also on the frontline in search of solutions.

Earlier this month, Ancram Fire Chief David Boice and Copake Fire Chief David Proper, each of whom have dedicated 30+ years to their local fire companies, organized a meeting of fire and town officials in the Battalion 3 zone to discuss the future of the fire service at the Ancram Town Hall.

Battalion 3 is made up of the Hillsdale, Craryville, Copake, Ancram, Taghkanic and Churchtown fire companies.

Sometimes firefighters who have served in other companies move into town, but they frequently move on for job-related reasons, Copake Fire Chief Proper told The Columbia Paper this week.

As far as getting new residents—young people—who want to move here and start a family, that’s not happening,” said the chief. “We’re not getting any new blood. The county has turned into a retirement home.”

The lack of volunteerism is not just countywide, it’s statewide and nationwide, the chief noted.

Within the next 10 years we’re going to see big changes,” he said.

The Copake company still has 40 active members, about the same number it had a decade ago. But that includes fire police and chiefs, said Chief Proper, adding that now, “I only have 14 interior guys.” Ten years ago that number was 20 to 24.

Interior” firefighters are the people who actually go inside burning buildings to put out fires. Currently they have to have completed more than 100 hours of training and must also be physically qualified. Part of the reason for the decline in numbers of interior firefighters is age.

When you’re in your mid-to late-50s you don’t want to be crawling around inside a burning building—it’s pretty demanding,” said Chief Proper.

While annual recruitment drives may draw some interest and a few may even take home an application, they don’t follow-up, the chief said, “They don’t have the time.”

These days “both parents work, life styles have changed since we were growing up.”

The services firefighters provide have also changed with participation in “water, hiking and vehicle accident rescues—it’s not just firefighting anymore. This is what is demanded and what the public expects for service,” Chief Proper said.

Combine dwindling numbers of volunteers with high public expectations and an increased volume of calls and those are the “reasons the rescue squad went paid,” he said.

In his 32nd year with the Ancram Fire Company, Chief Boice echoed Chief Proper’s concerns, saying, “Our town doesn’t have nearly the number of young people” it used to. With most of the dairy farms gone, so too are the two or three hired men and their families who lived here, said Chief Boice.

He noted the difference between when he was growing up and raising his own children, who introduced a whole new set of time commitments with after school activities. “Now parents are all over the place.”

Another issue on which fire chiefs at the meeting agreed is that for volunteer firefighters to be available during the day to answer fire calls they have to be able to find good-paying jobs in the area.

Chief Boice said it is important for the public to understand the difference between fire districts and fire companies. He explained that the fire district governs the fire company. The district is an entity that can levy taxes and is run by an elected board of fire commissioners.

A fire company is made up of volunteers all of whom are engaged in meeting training requirements, sometimes two or three nights a week. “It’s a big time commitment,” Chief Boice said.

The bottom line: “We need to retain the members we have and entice others to join,” he said.

According to figures introduced at the meeting and included in notes provided by Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin, New York State estimates the cost of a fulltime firefighter, including pay and benefits at $138,000 annually.

For a fire company to hire a staff of 30 firefighters to provide 24/7 coverage, the price tag could be $4.1 million/year in salary and benefits alone.

The basic concern was that if we do not find new ways to attract and retain volunteer firefighters, fire districts and towns will eventually be forced to hire fulltime firefighters, and the fire service would evolve like the community ambulance services had evolved over the last 20 years from volunteers to paid professionals,” Mr. Bassin said in his notes.

Other challenges in recruiting and retaining volunteers outlined by fire officials at the meeting were:

A lack of “compelling incentives to become or stay a volunteer firefighter”

Requiring volunteer firefighters to do a variety of local emergency response jobs like “ambulance lifts, alarm activations and car accidents that do not involve firefighting but do take volunteers away from work and home at all hours of the day and night.

Ideas presented according to Mr. Bassin’s notes to help attract and retain volunteer firefighters included:

More affordable housing for firefighters through rent subsidies and/or property tax exemptions

More local jobs that keep young people in the area

Local or state law requiring employers to pay volunteer firefighters who leave work on calls

Health insurance subsidies for firefighters and families

College scholarships at Columbia-Greene Community College for firefighters and their families or reduced tuition

State legislation allowing volunteer firefighters to be paid when on calls, in training and at drills (an option used by some New England states)

Excuse volunteer firefighters from jury duty

Waive rescue squad fees for volunteer firefighters and families

Waive dump fees for volunteer firefighters

Pay fire companies for alarm activation, ambulance lift and car accident responses

Encourage town board and highway department members to become volunteer firefighters

Encourage weekend residents and retirees to participate in firefighter support roles (ambulance lifts, accidents, alarm activations, vehicle and firehouse maintenance) that do not include active interior firefighting.

Copake Supervisor Jeff Nayer will advise the Republican Caucus and the County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee of the Battalion 3 meeting and suggest that a subcommittee of the Public Safety Committee be established to focus on the future of the volunteer fire service. The county subcommittee should also develop recommendations before the end of the year. These recommendations will be shared with State Senator Kathy Marchione (R-43rd) and State Assembly Members Didi Barrett (D-106th), Steve McLaughlin (R-107th) and Peter Lopez (R-102nd) for action on matters that are under the state’s jurisdiction.

Hillsdale Supervisor Peter Cipkowski and Supervisor Bassin will advise the Democratic Caucus about the meeting and encourage Democratic supervisors to review these issues with their fire chiefs, fire district commissioners and firefighters.

County Fire Coordinator Bill Hunt will set up meetings with the other battalion chiefs and their supervisors to review and discuss the issues covered in this meeting.

Battalion 3 participants at this meeting will meet again in 60 to 90 days to review progress.

Most volunteer firefighters pay taxes too, Chief Boice said, and they want to keep the volunteer fire service going.

To contact Diane Valden email

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