Editorial: Finding volunteer firefighters is an enormous challenge

The news at fire departments from Greenport to Wading River is grim. There are just not enough volunteers to do the work that presents itself week after week.

Take, for example, Greenport Fire Department. As our story this week explains, there used to be a waiting list to get in, but a steady decline in membership means fewer and fewer first responders are signing up. The department currently has 125 members — about half its authorized strength.

In Riverhead, “nobody’s really kicking the door down to do it anymore,” according to first assistant chief Joe Hartmann. And in Southold the effort to attract new recruits has resumed after a freeze during the pandemic.

There are many reasons fire departments have hung out “help wanted” signs as they eagerly look for new volunteers. One of the leading culprits: Sharply rising housing costs have pushed out younger residents and brought in far wealthier demographic to the North Fork. Some of the new residents are part-time; new year-round residents tend to be older.

In addition to housing costs — which have skyrocketed during the pandemic — departments across the region cite other factors that make finding new volunteers very difficult.

Among them: Many younger residents have more than one job, thus limiting the time they could spend training, even as heightened training requirements for membership mean even more time away. 

A number of departments worry about early morning alarms because that’s when many potential volunteers are at work and may be unavailable to respond. In Wading River, the volunteer shortage coincides with increasing call volume, placing the entire workload on a smaller group.

Specifically, calls in Wading River rose from 1,089 in 2012 to 1,228 in 2020. In Cutchogue, volunteers responded to 476 calls last year, compared to 375 in 2008. With fewer people to respond, the strain on those who do only increases.

“You get four, five, six calls in a day and the same couple of people answering; the end of the day, you are tired,” said David Nyce, a volunteer in Greenport and a former village mayor.

And, as he said, that’s on top of whatever challenges those same people have at their jobs. As Southold’s chief Peggy Killian said, both spouses work in many households, making it nearly impossible for either of them, let alone both, to volunteer.

Add to the mix that fact that initial training can be a months-long process, all of which is mandated. That level of training makes it nearly impossible for people working day jobs to find time to volunteer.

These challenges combine to make it harder and harder for our fire departments, staffed with our hardworking neighbors, to find new recruits. These men and women are our heroes, saving lives regularly. In this week’s Suffolk Times, for example, one letter writer credits the Cutchogue ambulance crew for saving him when he went into heart failure. 

We don’t have the answers on getting more men and women to volunteer with local departments. Certainly the cost of housing is an enormous deterrent. 

But we hope this situation can be turned around. Our first responders are the very heart of our communities.