As local fire departments bolster recruitment efforts, training requirements and housing remain biggest obstacles
Fire departments across the North Fork need more volunteers.
East End volunteer fire departments have traditionally struggled to fill their ranks, largely due to the time- and energy-consuming training required to become a firefighter or an emergency medical technician. Although training courses have become more advanced to prepare first responders for an increasing variety of emergency scenarios, attracting and retaining enough new members remains difficult.
“In general, in New York State, there has been a drastic decline in the number of people becoming volunteer firefighters and volunteer EMS responders for probably more than two decades,” John D’Alessandro, secretary of the Firefighters Association of the State of New York, said. “It was estimated back in the early 2000s there were about 120,000 volunteer firefighters in the state. Today we’re down to about 75,000 to 80,000.”
For some departments, recruitment and retention has been stable. But they still struggle to cultivate those who can serve for the long haul.
“The Greenport Fire Department right now has 138 members, but that includes everybody,” department secretary James Kalin said. “That includes the 60-year, 70-year members who still maintain membership, but obviously after [so many] years in the fire service, they’re not as active as they used to be.”
Volunteer departments across New York State need all hands on deck as they face not only more calls, but a wider array of emergency scenarios, including encounters with hazardous materials and electric vehicle battery fires. Earlier this month, Greenport Fire Department held a two-session training course regarding the latter. Participants learned how to utilize a cellar nozzle, which Mr. Kalin described as “a giant lawn sprinkler,” to cool the batteries located underneath electric cars. The nozzle is quite outdated, he explained, and was intended to douse fires in basements when access was limited.
“It’s old technology, and now they’re adapting it for electric vehicles where it slides underneath the car and spins around to put water up on the battery case,” Mr. Kalin said. “When a car’s that low, how do you apply water to the battery case when you can’t get under it?”
Before a department can train a recruit, they must first attract new volunteers to enroll in and pass the 16-week, 110-hour Firefighter I course. That state-mandated training program teaches the fundamentals necessary to become an interior structural firefighter, which requires the skills — and bravery — to strap on gear and enter a burning building. Typically held a few weeknights each week plus hands-on procedure and equipment training on Saturdays, the time commitment for this course is one of the most significant deterrents to becoming a firefighter, according to Mr. D’Alessandro, who said this was revealed in volunteer focus groups.
The time-consuming nature of this training hinders recruitment throughout the state. But on the North Fork and East End, departments must also grapple with rising home costs that deter young people from settling in for the long haul.
WADING RIVER AND CUTCHOGUE ARE AMONG THE MANY LOCAL DEPARTMENTS ACTIVELY SEEKING NEW VOLUNTEERS. (CREDIT: MELISSA AZOFEIFA & NICHOLAS GRASSO)
“Our biggest problem is housing out here,” Mr. Kalin said. “There’s just no place for a young person to live, unless you’re still living home with Mom and Dad. A lot of our best members right now are not young people. They’re retired or semi-retired people that live out here now that want to contribute something for a while. They might only be able to give us 10 years of service, but I’ll take 10 years from anybody.”
It’s no secret that Southold Town has been facing an affordable housing crisis for years. The Corcoran Report for the fourth fiscal quarter of 2022 shows that the North Fork saw about half the housing sales activity from last year, with less than 100 closings reported. The report also states that nearly all North Fork towns saw price growth from the prior year.
Voters in Southold Town and other local municipalities recently approved a new 0.5% real estate transfer tax specifically to fund housing solutions on the East End. The legislation is part of the Peconic Bay Region Community Housing Act, signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2021. Southold is slated to start collecting funds this year, but before any of that money can be spent, the Town Board must first hold a public hearing and approve a plan for how it will be used. The plan may take months to finalize. The effect all of these strains have on the towns’ volunteer services such as the fire department can’t be understated.
“What we see are many volunteers having to work multiple jobs to meet their housing costs, this cuts into the time they can serve,” said Patricia Lutzky, co-chair of the Southold Town Housing Advisory Commission. “We need a sustainable workforce to support our businesses and essential services like police, health care and volunteer fire and EMT services.”
Departments, towns and the state have all been rolling out initiatives to recruit more volunteers. FASNY’s annual “Recruit-NY” statewide open house event, in which several North Fork departments participated, proved fruitful for recruiting, especially for Cutchogue Fire Department, which used the event to kick off a longer outreach plan.
“Through our efforts over the past year we’ve taken in 13 new members,” Cutchogue chief Bill Brewer said. “That’s a huge number for us.”
“For years it was something that wasn’t advertised that we needed help,” he continued. “But now we have posters and signs around and we’re making it known that our doors are open and we’re welcoming new members.”
Brewer said the department is developing an idea to recruit future volunteers straight out of high school.
“We’re hoping to do a lunch to talk with the junior and senior classes in the high school to hopefully bring in some younger members,” Brewer said. “It’s still in the planning stages but it’s something we’re working on … Hopefully if we’re able to get young people at the high school age, hopefully they can see it through and give us some years of service.”
Some departments provide volunteers with an array of benefits and incentives. Cutchogue offers a gym membership, while further east, the Orient Fire District offers dental and vision insurance for their members.
For more than a decade, Riverhead and Southold towns have also offered a 10% property tax discount for volunteers after five years of service.
In her 2023 State of the State address Gov. Hochul announced forthcoming statewide measures to attract more volunteers. The proposal aims to enact “legislation to allow communities to pay modest compensation to eligible volunteer firefighters,” as well as “create a fund to pay a stipend to volunteer firefighters upon completion of certain foundational training or certification required for core responsibilities.”
To overcome two major obstacles recruiters face — lack of time and concerns about entering structures engulfed in flames — the Suffolk County Fire Academy offers a basic exterior training course. The slightly shorter course produces firefighters who can perform critical tasks outside of burning buildings.
While Cutchogue and other departments have found some success through strategic recruitment initiatives, other departments seem to have lucked out, finding volunteers actively seeking to serve their communities.
“It’s just word-of-mouth and some of the younger guys who come in, their friends are also joining,” Chief Joe Hartmann of Riverhead Fire Department said. “We don’t really have too much out there for recruitment.”