Among Long Island’s 179 volunteer fire departments, there are nearly 21,000 volunteer firefighters. In Nassau County, there are about 9,500 volunteers, and while that number has remained pretty consistent over time, the factors affecting their demand have continued to change.
“The problem on Long Island, and in Nassau County in particular, is that the same amount of people in the fire department don’t always have the same amount of time that generation before us did,” said Robert Leonard, the chairman of the public relations committee for the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), and former fire captain for Syosset’s volunteer department. “You may need more members to accomplish the same work and then you compound on top of that, the volume of calls has gone up two, three, four-fold in the last two decades.”
With more volunteer firefighters also working other jobs full-time, individuals are unable to devote the same time to the departments that they once did.
“Even with the departments that have been maintaining the same numbers on paper, some members are aging, and the new members coming in don’t have the availability the old members did,” said Leonard. “People are joining and still have to work full-time jobs are part of dual or two-income families.”
Along with changing populations within the firehouses, increases in call volume have also created a greater demand for more volunteers.
“Emergency medical service calls are up dramatically, at least two if not three-fold in the last 25 years on Long Island,” said Leonard. The rising median age of Long Island residents and increases in senior housing may play a role in this trend.
The presence of smoke detectors and alarms, along with mandates requiring carbon monoxide detectors has also contributed to a greater call volume.
“Those technologies are great, but they frequently malfunction,” explained Leonard. “They save many lives and fire service strongly supports them, but we have fire departments doing 1,200-1,500 automatic fire alarms a year and only one or two are actually a fire.”
Leonard also pointed out that much of those who fit into the traditional volunteer pool, recent high school graduates and those in their early 20s, are not staying on Long Island, especially as more people go away to college.
“It’s harder for those young people when they turn 24, 25, 26, and they meet the boyfriend, the girlfriend, the significant other, and decide to put down those roots,” he explained. “It’s hard to do that on Long Island.”
With that in mind, fire departments are making volunteering for those in their 30s, 40s and 50s more practical by providing more structured schedules and flexibility around their jobs and responsibilities outside of the fire house.
“Some of the most productive members are those in their 30s and 40s,” said Leonard.
Additionally, departments are turning to education and outreach to spread awareness about volunteer opportunities.
“We need to do a better job, and fire departments across Long Island are working on it, educating new homeowners that the fire departments are volunteer,” said Leonard. “Also, we are educating people that they still join after the age of 25 or so.”
On April 27 to 28, FASNY spearheaded this effort with the annual statewide RecruitNY weekend, a recruitment drive dedicated to opening up fire departments to their communities to learn more about volunteering in local fire departments.
“It is a privilege and an honor to serve as a volunteer firefighter and we are always looking for new members to join us in our mission to protect communities,” said Steven E. Klein, president of FASNY, in a statement as Long Island fire departments announced their participation in RecruitNY on April 23 in Old Bethpage.
During the drive, departments host educational opportunities that extend a dialogue about the demands, rewards and experiences being a volunteer firefighter brings.
“Today we are encouraging everyone to consider giving their time and effort by joining one of our amazing volunteer and EMS agencies,” said John Jordan, commissioner of the Suffolk County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Operations, at the announcement. “The volunteer emergency services are a tremendous asset to all of our communities in both Nassau and Suffolk counties and we are here today, just as we do every day, proud of them and proud to support them and encourage more people to consider joining.”
Taryn Schofield is a contributing writer at Anton Media Group.