EDITORIAL: Where will we find new firefighters?

IT WAS HARD TO AVOID studying the vigor of the firefighters marching in the annual Columbia County Fair Fire Fighters Parade last weekend in Chatham. Everybody’s strong, healthy and optimistic, right? Right?

Volunteer firefighters have to be stronger and in better shape than the general public or they wouldn’t be wearing the uniform. They have to remain fit or they won’t be able keep up with the training requirements.

As for their optimism, that’s personal; but it says something positive that so many of our neighbors volunteer to risk their lives protecting ours. Too bad there are barely enough of them now and soon there could be a critical shortage if current trends continue.

Emergency medical squads also anticipate an even more difficult time recruiting emergency medical technicians and paramedics in the years ahead, county EMS Coordinator P.J. Keeler told the Human Services Committee of the county Board of Supervisors last month. These folks are salaried, but they perform what can be a burn-out job after a few decades.

Money is part of the solution, and here’s a figure to put the problem in perspective: $138,000. Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin says that’s how much the state estimates it costs each year for a fulltime firefighter. If Ancram had to pay 30 firefighters for round-the-clock coverage, personnel costs for firefighters alone would be over $4 million. Ancram’s total annual budget is around $1.3 million.

Even assuming a small town like Ancram could fund a less expensive combination of paid and volunteer firefighters with some financial help from the county, state and federal governments, most Columbia County towns are nowhere near ready to make the transition from an all-volunteer to a paid professional fire department.

Technology might also play some role in cutting costs. If, for instance, the state makes good on Governor Cuomo’s promise to fund upgrades that improve local access to broadband internet, the town might deploy sensors that tell officials a lot more about what’s burning and give firefighters more information about a fire or medical emergency before they arrive at the scene.

Sophisticated technology might also introduce more advanced systems like firefighting drones. Sounds kooky but how many people imagined a decade ago that civilians would have drones? Ancram may not get driverless cars, but what about paramedic-less ambulances or firefighter-free fire trucks? That’s far-fetched until you remember that young adults today have never experienced a world without personal digital devices.

As much as technology can help, it cannot fix the looming shortage of human beings willing to work at tasks in public safety and health fields. The people who know that best are the firefighters and EMS personnel themselves. Last month firefighters from Battalion 3, which covers many Roe Jan area towns, met to address this challenge and suggest solutions. They had lots of good ideas, although some will require legislation, which is where good ideas often go to die.

One approach missing from the list of suggestions is a plan to entice new young adults to settle in the most rural areas of this county, where the average age is, by some measures, the second oldest in the state. Yes, that would be immigrants. And not just people abandoning Brooklyn either, although they’d be welcome too. Who knows if there are potential firefighters from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan or South Sudan in search of the American dream and ready to battle blazes here.

Our immigration laws make this difficult although it should be possible. And it’s understandable that some readers might reject this idea as unworkable and wrong-headed, arguing that we’d do better to offer more incentives to local families. But that’s a false choice and it ignores two points: 1. The data suggest there aren’t enough young people here fill the need; and 2. We can do both.

It might also seem that encouraging immigration doesn’t fit with the American tradition of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, except that what we were taught in school was that this country was built with the contributions from wave after wave of immigrant strivers.

The service of our volunteer firefighters is an extraordinary gift. They sustain our communities in ways the rest of us cannot hope to repay. If firefighters and EMS personnel identify goals they think will build stronger services, their requests should become countywide priorities. But our communities need to grow responsibly and we’d better start looking for new ways to do that because the old ones aren’t working so well anymore.

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